The covers of Northern Lights

Updated: Jan 4

I realised documenting my own project to design a cover-type image for Northern Lights I have mentioned previous covers a lot without really getting into the patterns. And it's juuuust possible not everyone has the obsessive relationship with both/either Northern Lights and world of book jacket design that I do...

I find Northern Lights a really interesting case study of approaches to covering a book, firstly because it's a slightly tricky book for those responsible for marketing to place, and secondly because it's been a massively popular and respected book pretty much since publication so great trouble has been taken for each reissue.

It has also been out a while - coming up to thirty years! - and so has been through a few covers. To get us started, here's a chronology of the major covers the book has had in the UK:

Now let's take a closer look at Northern Lights journey through these covers.

The new book

Northern Lights was first published in the UK in 1995 by Scholastic, who continue to publish His Dark Materials today.

Scholastic obviously knew they had something very special on their hands and took great care in designing the harback edition by which the new novel would debut.

The illustrator they hired was David Scutt, a very successful commercial artist of the old school in that he created almost photo-realistic illustrations with airbrush. He had previously worked on Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart novels, but for Northern Lights he surpassed himself, creating a meticulous illustration of the 'alethiometer' device from the novel.

While there is much imagery in the novel that is striking, nothing quite sets the tone of the book like the image of the alethiometer does: it is mysterious and accessible all at once, fantastical and mechanical. Looking at it one can understand a certain amount about what it is and could mean, but only enough to be all the more intrigued.

The UK market in particular would see a trend of covers centring the alethiometer. As the sequel books came out they turned out to have their own central intriguing objects which could become the suject of matching illustrations. Perhaps the publishers even had some foresight of that, depending on how thorough Pullman's series proposal had been and already had an eye on the sequels when they commissioned this original image for Northern Lights.

And Scholastic trusted to the strength of the image as so conceptually and visually strong that to include any of the conventional cover elements would only weaken it. No title, no by-line.

The only other element on this original cover is a tagline - still quite an unusual device on 1995 book covers, though these days quite ubiquitous. This adds a helpful note of danger and adventure to those of beauty, novelty, richness and mystery already covered by the alethiometer illustration.

This was the cover in which I first read Northern Lights, but it wasn't actually the once that first captured my attention.

That was the original UK paperback, illustrated by Stuart Williams:

In 1996, when this book was fresh out in paperback, my local library had a publisher-supplied poster of this cover on the wall above the teenage section of this cover. I was absolutely intrigued by it.

The unusual composition, and the chiaroscuro lighting, that give so little away exactly matched the mood of the 'rich casket of wonders' the glowing pull-quote speaks of.

Even the formatting of the cover seemed grown-up. The slim serif font choice and text allignment lends an air of sophistication, and the title was bossed and foiled. Again, these days, almost every children's book is foiled, but it wasn't at all common in the 90s. The bossed/foiled Carnegie meal is obviously really something too.

Stuart Williams' artwork has a deeply atmospheric and mysterious vibe. It works upon the eye the way so much of the early novel works; providing just the right amount of information and opacity to be utterly intriguing.

However, the design didn't last that long as paperback.

The commercial years

I've talked recently about the way books progress through covers in their early years.

Hardbacks launch a book and make the most of their time in the spotlight - i.e. that this is the time books will be in windows, in 'new titles' displays in shops, and being reviewed in papers with the cover appearing as a thumbnail alongside.

Then when a book progresses to paperback, different priorities come to the fore. No longer being singled out for promotion or review, a book needs to get more communicative and commercial on its own.

Additionally, a publisher may take this opportunity for slight changes in direction. A lot of books have more than one possible audience, and the paperback can be a chance to capture one that wasn't quite aimed for with the hardback.

In Northern Lights' case we have seen that there was a complete redesign between hardback and paperback, with brand new illustration and typography, and even palette. All the same, it's not clear that the publisher was aiming for a different effect or market. Both hardback and first paperback hit similar tones and audience appeal. That's curious, because it means the publisher have given up continuity from the hardback (and this is a book which had attracted attention as a hardback so keeping a consistent look has potential value), but not gained fresh appeal.

The only reason I can think of to prompt a thorough redesign, then, was that the existing illustration wouldn't accommodate the Carnegie medal very well and the Carnegie medal is very much worth accommodating.

So that was the first paperback, and it didn't last long. The prompt for a new edition came with the paperback publication of the sequel, The Subtle Knife. The Subtle Knife came out in a hardback in 1997 in a hardback editon that matched that Northern Lights' hardback, also featuring a David Scutt illustration of its central object. Now due out in paperback in 1998, Scholastic chose not to match the existing Northern Lights paperback but rather dump the Stuart Williams direction and use those David Scutt illustrations as the centre of a new direction for the paperbacks. The design studio Black Sheep created paperback designs based around Scutt's illustrations.

The Amber Spyglass came out in 2000 (and in paperback in 2001) and was issued to complete this existing look.

Indeed, Scholastic were apparently happy enough with this look that these remained the main editions until 2006, meaning this Northern Lights cover was around for eight years. These days we get about three new editions of the His Dark Materials books a year so that longevity is very striking.

The later nineties and early 2000s was a time when some of the forces that now dominate publishing and steer cover design were just emerging. The children's book trade was emerging as the new powerhouse of publishing in the wake of Harry Potter; digital sales were starting to matter at least as much as physical ones; and idea of author/series branding were getting much more serious.

What Scholastic did here was create a really strong visual brand for His Dark Materials. The David Scutt illustrations gave the trilogy a powerful brand, each object a unique and beautiful 'logo' for the book. These are covers designed around recognisably modern priorities - the big title readable at thumbnail, the clear composition.

At the same time, it's funny to see how rough some of the edges are compared the the incredible slickness of current cover design. The title's weight doesn't feel properly aligned with the alethiometer illustration; the silhouette landscape at the bottom falls of with slightly awkward steepness as the right. And all the lightning crackle and digitally rendered landscape background is undoubtedly dated, and the outer-glow effect on the title too; and the alethiometer's colour profile seems badly managed turning the warm gold to a sickly green.

Yet it's still a great cover, and along with its fellows in the trilogy probably one of the most iconic examples of 90s cover design.

The basic design was rejiggered and refigured a few times, as seen just above.

Though this edition had great longevity it wasn't the only edition to come out in these years.

As I have referenced, children's publishing was undergoing huge shifts in the in the late 90s and early 2000s. With the cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter obviously driving a lot of it, children's books were gaining a more widespread adult readership. Harry Potter innovated a way f encouraging this market - by issuing its books as 'adults editions' to be stocked in the SF & Fantasy sections of shops as well as in the children's section in their original covers.

When The Amber Spyglass came out in 2000, it met with huge critical engagement. The other books had been well praised, but The Amber Spyglass transcended the children's ghetto and earned column-inches of both praise and criticism not normally afforded to kids' lit. The book was longlisted for the Booker and won the Whitbread (now called the Costa) Award - major adult fiction prizes. The National Theatre was soon talking about an adaptation. It was clearly a crossover hit worth encouraging by - like Harry Potter - giving grown-ups editions they could read on the bus without having to be embarrassed y obviously kiddy covers..

In fact His Dark Materials' existing covers, as we have seen, weren't particularly kiddy. They were however quite obviously fantastical, and it is worth remembering that in contrast to now it was also still quite embarrassing for a serious person to be seen reading from that genre.

Either way, Scholastic clearly appreciated the opportunity to signal the trilogy's intelligentsia creds to customers here and, even better, get the books onto a second location in bookshops.

With the existing covers already frankly pretty sophisticated, 'adult editions' had to go really hard on the worthiness front. It was time to slap some art on the trilogy.

For Northern Lights Scholastic selected the a painting by Polish-French artist Balthus, Jeune Fille en Vert et Rouge:

I have paradoxical opinions on this. I think it's both an interesting choice and very dull.

For years I thought this painting was what it appears to be at a glance - a detail of some minor Flemish Renaissance painting, with no more attention paid to the particularity of the text than to pick something featuring a young girl. Something chosen to signal with desperate try-hard-ness that this book is proper literature without having much engagement with the actual text.

In fact this is a modern work. It was painted in 1944. And that tension between old and modern actually does speak to the feel of the world of the book. Balthus was broadly a surrealist and one who might be best known for having imagery in many paintings that some consider 'sexually disturbing', and is certainly uneasy. Balthus is in fact - theoretically - an interesting artist to bring to bear on His Dark Materials.

But ultimitely covers work at a glance and I don't think this cover communicates any of that stuff readily. It does just appear to be a vaguely-chosen, uninteresting-composed Renaissance piece. The cover composition does little to make it feel any more careful or bespoke, with the black bars for title and byline giving the whole a dull Penguin classics feel.

Between the adult edition and the standard edition, His Dark Materials was now supremely well catered for in attracting older readers and crossover readers. Tot he point that perhaps the 11+ audience who were supposed to be the trilogy's primary readers were getting left behind.

That changed in about 2006, when the David Scutt/Black sheep editions were finally retired, and replaced with:

These editions, at least in their first iteration, were explicitly referred to 'Junior Editions'. They started out very young, with saturated colours and a jaunty approach to type but interestingly, these covers also shifted steadily towards the mature over the course of their reissues. Byt the final form of these covers, the colours had been way desaturated and the illustration details that most connoted adventure and fantasy had been dropped altogether.

At the time of their issue, I didn't like these covers much at the time but I've warmed a huge amount towards them.

I think what makes me like it more these days is that in recent years His Dark Materials has somewhat suffered from being treated with a dull self-seriousness, a surfeit of respect, with covers and adaptations drowned the book is so much pompousness they've rather forgotten to be cool and fun. It's just nice to see an edition which isn't ashamed to be a cracking adventure for juvenile readers, whatever else it may be.

These editions encounter an interesting - well, if not necessarily problem, then challenge: the books deal heavily in animal imagery but it's difficult to use animal imagery on covers without steering into wholly the wrong territory - looking fluffy, sentimental; like conventional juvenile fantasy full of talking animals.

I thik these covers did pretty well in finding a sweet spot where the imagery remains appealing to a young audience without looking too babyish or whimsical.

I have another reason that I'm retrospectively slightly fond of this edition, which is that I kind of super hate the Northern Lights cover that replaced it:

This cover has an unusual origin. For the celebration of World Book Night in 2010, special editions of 25 popular and acclaimed novels were created to be distributed for free, volunteers handing them out. Northern Lights was one and this was the cover, designed by Crush Design.

Then Scholastic liked the cover so much they asked Crush to tweak it for real publication and create matching ones for The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass and launched these as their standard edition.

That origin story provides a good reason for this cover's flaws: it had a really quick turnaround. It actually happens that the designer who worked on this is a genuine favourite of mine, but you don't always have the opportunity to do your best work.

I think this is the kind of cover that non-designers might be surprised to hear called bad and to be fair that's not nothing - that means it's doing it's job; it's working for everyone but the minority of nitpickers with their eye tuned in.

It achieves an overall glancing impressing of 'pretty' and 'professional'. After the quite old-fashioned and slightly cheesy vibes of the previous paperback I can see how this looks like a breath of fresh air.

The problem/s is best summed up by the word 'clipparty'.

Stock imagery is a wonderful and valid resource. I use it heavily myself. The trick is in selecting and editing stock carefully so it doesn't stick out like something obviously pasted into an environment it doesn't quite fit. This cover fails pretty hard at that. It's super obvious at a glance that the animal silhouettes are not bespoke to this design but existing stock.

The choices in composition and colour draw the eye to these white animal silhouettes which really can't stand the attention. They are awkwardly arranged, assymetric and randomly sized, and awkward in themselves. They are, and look like, clipart.

Equivalent choices are why the The Subtle Knife cover works better. The silhouettes are still very stocky-looking but a few key details forgive that. The way the snake interacts with the swirlies, and how it and the witch shape balance each other well.

Talking of swirlies, hello mid-2000s. It's not quite fair to criticise a design trope for being of its time and looking dated now. But the thing is, in 2010, vector swirlies were already old. And they don't come of the central round shape elegantly, but jutting from the sides at a right angle.

The central piece, the alethiometer, is the best part of the cover. Being built out of geometric shapes, there has been more oppurtunity for the designer to draw this from scarcth rather than use existing stock. You can see that she has traced the dial part from David Scutt's alethiometer illustration.

What's missing is the symbols. And the problem is that without them it just looks like a compass and so loses any particularly intriguing properties.

As for the title itself, being placed over the Alethiometer, it has to sit in a weird place, because 'Northern' is the longer word and thus must sit across the widest part of the circle. It wouldn't impossible to make that work. They could have balanced this by placing 'The Global Bestseller, His Dark Materials' directly above the title instead of at the bottom of the cover.

As I say, all this is design nitpicking really. The reasons I dislike the cover are personal ones, I do accept that it does its job effectively for general impressions. But its one of the rare occasions that Northern Lights has gone out in a cover that doesn't feel careful and valuing but rather that'll-do-ish'.

The film tie-in

That takes us up to 2010, but we must backtrack by a couple of years, because there was one other significant point in the timeline accounting for covers: the release of the major film adaptation of Northern Lights (called by its American title The Golden Compass) in 2007.

As is usual, the book was reissued with a cover based on the film's poster. No one I know really likes film tie-in covers - but they do sell really well. It does however help when the poster is good, and The Golden Compass has a really good poster.

The UK is one of the few markets where Northern Lights doesn't have much history of featuring the Lyra and Iorek pair on its covers. As we have started to see and will continue too, UK covers are far more likely to focus on the alethiometer. But in the US and other markets, girl and bear have been by far the most popular subject - so it was impressive that the marketing department for the film managed to conceive a new arrangement of these much-used elements that was very effective:

The poster was principally designed for landscape format billboards, but crops well to a portrait frame. The film's title lock-up is pretty and the designer has managed to get on the unwieldy information of the two titles across without it cluttering up the cover, which is impressive.

And I'm oddly fond of the tie-in editions of the other two books. It's a lovely touch that someone has rendered their titles in the movie's title style. The film may have bombed but the people working on it, including in the graphics department cared about what they were making and paid attention to the details.

The Special Edition years

By the mid-2000s we were also hitting significant anniversaries. For Northern Lights' 10th birthday in 2005, Scholastic put out a set of hardbacks that mildly reworked the then-current David Scutt/Black Sheep paperback design.

Something a bit more special came in 2007. This wasn't to mark any anniversary. In fact it was a mildly odd time for this 'special edition' style version to come out.

In 2003 Pullman had published the first of his 'little' His Dark Materials books, Lyra's Oxford. It featured the artwork of master woodcutter John Lawrence. There was no wholesale repackaging of His Dark Materials at this time to tie into this new addition. The little books weren't published by Scholastic but Penguin.

In 2008 Pullman was to publish the second of these little accompany books, Once Upon a Time in the North which matched Lyra's Oxford in its styling and use of John Lawrence's work.

But it was a year before that, in 2007 that the trilogy itself got a John Lawrence overhaul.

So Scholastic did eventually tie into styles originated by Penguin via these supplementary books but at kind of a weird time. Perhaps Lawrence was commissioned in 2003 and simply took a while to finish the artwork for the main trilogy.

These were His Dark Materials covers which once again saw the three objects centred.

These covers started as hardbacks, and progressed through a kind of 'deluxe paperback' version with heavy stock watercolour-textured card and a French fold cover. Finally it arrived in true paperback form, though still retaining the nice watercolour texture cover (and slightly boosted price compared to the standard editions which were at this point in time for those keeping score, the ones with the animals faces glaring out and also the movie tie-ins) so still unmistakably a deluxe or gifting option.

I couldn't swear to it, or find evidence of it, but my memory is that this at least started as a Waterstones exclusive edition. The hardbacks (and possibly the deluxe paperbacks?) were called the 'Lantern Slides Edition' and is the first to include a little appendix of supplementary notes and 'snapshots' that are now standard to UK editions.

They all lovely editions, but for me this Lawrence artwork didn't realise its full potential until it wwas used as the base of the 20th anniversary edition published in 2015:

These have the self-confidence and pride of that original hardback design. No need for a big title or by-line. The objects say it all. This time around it's because the books have become modern classics.

It's always bold to use white in cover design - or any graphic design - and while that had worked well on the previous John Lawrence covers somehow here it really works. I brings a freshness and confidence in, eschews a safer dark and sombre palette which signals 'seriousness' more obviously.

Even the '20th Anniversary Edition' roundel is fine. I never like this kind of thing printed directly onto a book cover. Except here the shape adds a anchor of solid colour that helps balance out the whole cover.

The Book of Dust/HBO years

2017 saw the publication, finally, of the long-promised follow-up to His Dark Materials The Book of Dust. Or rather what turned out to be the first volume of what was now a trilogy called The Book of Dust: La Bella Sauvage.

As had (kind of) happened with with publication of the 'little books', this prompted a style change to reissue all existing books featuring the artwork of the new illustrator.

Possibly influenced by the success of Lawrence as a choice, Scholastic commissioned for the new covers another woodcut printmaker, Chris Wormell.

Wormell's style is much more precise and close-lined than Lawrence's, with the aesthetic almost more of lithography or etching sometimes than woodcut.

And Chris Wormell's meticulous, dark-toned work suits the more adult tone of the Book of Dust books well. He has also produced illustrations for Northern Lights itself which I love.

But I don't like his Northern Lights cover. It's boring.

Once again, these place the three objects at the centre of each cover.

Looking specifically at the cover of Northern Lights, I think we see a problem which has come up before - that the alethiometer is not clearly distinguished from being a compas, and so its power to intrigue is lost. To me the cover is grown-up in a bad way - no atmosphere, no intrigue.

I think the stsstaid illustraion coulkd be brought to life with alively type direction on the title but that too is extremely dull and serious.

This is, as I referenced earlier, the era of people handling His Dark Materials with such respect they kind of kill it.

Talking of which...

In 2019 the second major screen adaptation of His Dark Materials kicked off, this a TV series co-produces by the BBC and HBO. I've gone into my opinions on that adaptation have been covered fairly thoroughly elsewhere on this site. Quick precis: with the greatest respect to brilliant work being done by many people on board, I feel the series is fundamentally let down at the level of scriptwriting storytelling and imagination to be a lifeless and thematically empty rendition of the material.

As for the cover itself, it's an odd one. My guess is that this book needed artwork finalised before a lot of the production materials were ready and choices were limited, because the shot selected isn't one that's a particularly interesting moment, or one that suits a portrait framing very well.

Luckily 2019 also saw the publication of a 'Gift Edition' that broke up all this dull self-seriousness, and provided something a child might actually want to pick up and read. A paperback, but with the aforementioned 'deluxe-ness' of having an unusually thick and textured French-fol-cover, this and its companion covers for the Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were illustrated by Melissa Castrillon.

It's likely Scholastic had noticed that their standard edition with the Chris Wormell illustration was skewing old (and dull) and thus unlikely to pull in the younger readers, leading to them commissioning such a colourful and stylised illustrator.

The Castrillon covers go the classic 'objects' route with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, except with Northern Lights breaks the pattern by centring Iorek instead of the alethiometer. I always love Castrillon's work and these are really pretty and fun.

That is only one of several 'special editions' the last few years have see. Scholastic has been happily capitalising on the particular attention on their star property brought about by both the BBC/HBO adaptation and the ongoing publication of the The Book of Dust sequel trilogy.

In 2020 we saw an illustrated edition:

Since I've been rude about Wormell's His Dark Materials covers I must stress I love this edition. Not only do I like Wormell's interior illustrations a whole lot, I find they tap into something very close to how I imagined scenes when I first read the book. As an interior illustrator Wormell's careful, technically brilliant style suits the weight and richness of the book extremely well.

But as with his paperback His Dark Materials again, I find his cover for this edition dull. Again, the image just lacks the energy to intrigue. It matters less here, of course since a huge, expensive Illustrated Edition is only going to be bought by those with a pre-existing love of the book.

In 2021 we have had another Special Edition:

It's hard to say what market opportunity these were prompted by. They seem to have quite directly replaced the Melissa Castrillon editions, but unlike those these definitely don't skew to the junior market.

They might be said to be a return to the idea of 'adult editions'. But just to complicate that idea, the original adult editions, the ones featuring se selected art, were resissued later the same year.

If these covers had come out ten years ago I wouldn't have the same questions, recognising them as a 'prestigee project. IBut Rankin is hardly the trendy, headline-grabbing name he once was.

So I wonder if maybe the idea is to do a kind of screen tie-in without doing a screen tie-in, as it were.

To produce something photographic, cinematic, prestige-y, but without actually being directly tied to an adaptation - either because that might lend them more longevity, because it might separate them from a series that Scholastic might feel is underperforming critically - or just for some rights reasons. That's all just a wild stab though.

In any case, I actually love this Northern Lights cover. I think what works so well is the particularity of the choices Rankin has made. That's a very specific Lyra, and this is a cover with something specific to say, a particular read, an authentic artistic interest in the book. It's visually all the things I felt were so missing from the screen adaptation.

Unlike the current standard paperback edition with the Chris Wormell artwork, this is a cover with bags of atmosphere too. Lyra and Pantalaimon are almost drowned in darkness, and the light falls with high contrast. This chiaroscuro lighting takes us right back to that original paperback, the very one which drew me to Northern Lights in the first place.

It's surprising how little the Lyra/Pantalaimon pair has been picked up on to focus on focus in cover art for Northern Lights. I talked already about the difficulties in depicting animal imagery without slipping intosignals of the cute, young or whimsical which would be unhelpful for this book. But Rankin has found a way to present this most central relationship as freshly striking and suggestive of just the right angles of intrigue - again, quite a feat to be novel in working with a book with 30 years of publication and so many editions across many markets under its belt.

OK but which is the best one

Well, these are my favourites - so far:

Next time I'm going to go through the US editions!