Clockwork by Philip Pullman – this spooky classic will have kids reading like clockwork

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Clockwork: or All Wound Up by Philip Pullman
Corgi Yearling, 2004. Pages: 92.
Genres: Children’s fiction / fantasy
We rate it: 5/5

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Post updated November 2020.

“Tick, tock, tick, tock! Some stories are like that. Once you’ve wound them up, nothing will stop them!”

Clockwork by Philip Pullman is a mysterious tale. It’s perfect for young readers who love spooky stories. Reading it out loud together on a cold winters night – snuggled and cosy indoors – should be a real treat.

Plot twists and turns in Clockwork by Philip Pullman

The Clockwork story begins in the small German town of Glockenheim. In the warm and cosy White Horse Tavern, the townspeople gather to keep warm and be sociable on a winter’s evening.

The clock maker’s apprentice Karl, shares his woes with story-teller Fritz. Karl has failed to complete the major task of his apprenticeship. He should have built a clockwork figure to feature in the town’s amazing clock.

The next day people will come from far and wide to see the new addition to the Glockenheim clock tower. The lack of a new moving figure will mean disappointment for them and humiliation for Karl.

Fritz is about to tell a story to the crowd at the Tavern. Unfortunately, he has not thought of an end to the story, it is unfinished but he is planning to wing it and see what happens.


The odd tale is about Prince Otto and his young son Florian. Their hunting trip has led to the mysterious death of Otto but his body has returned with a moving clockwork arm.

Clockwork’s complicated and satisfying structure provides twists and turns. As Fritz begins to speak, his story becomes another story within the book, and it’s characters come into the life of the town of Glockenheim as if the story itself is coming to life.

There is a sudden shock when the sinister figure of one of Fritz’s characters actually walks into the tavern and interrupts him mid-story-telling. Like the apprentice Karl, the unexpected guest Dr Kalmenius is a maker of clockwork figures.

Fritz’s spoken story springs to life, much like the clockwork figures featured. Terrified of the appearance of the character, Fritz flees.

The artistic temperament! What nonsense!

The narrator likens stories and characters to clockwork figures. Once set in motion they must keep moving to fulfill their purpose and bring the story to an end.

More characters take centre stage in the story including kind-hearted Gretl. Eventually, the narratives of the interlocking stories come together with a satisfying conclusion.

This book is magical and slightly shocking. Like a good old-fashioned fairy tale, it doesn’t pull its punches. Clockwork characters who act selfishly or who are lazy are punished. Lessons come across on the merits of having a kind heart and being hard-working.

Witty asides and insights from the narrator in side-boxes support the plot. One argues, “The artistic temperament! What nonsense! There’s no such thing. Only amateurs have temperaments. Real artists get on with the job and don’t fuss about it.”

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Clockwork Philip Pullman characters

Here’s my definitive list of all the characters in Clockwork in order of appearance:

  • Putzi – the tavern cat
  • Gretl – the tavern landlord’s daughter
  • Herr Ringelmann – the clockmaker
  • Karl – the apprentice clockmaker
  • the Burgomaster (town mayor)
  • customers drinking at the tavern
  • Fritz – the writer
  • the tavern’s landlord
  • Prince Otto
  • Florian – the son of Prince Otto
  • Baron Stelgratz – a friend of Prince Otto
  • a sentry
  • the sergeant of the guard
  • the Royal Physician
  • the servants
  • Dr Kalmenius
  • Sir Ironsoul
  • Princess Mariposa
  • a groom

Phew – I set myself quite a challenge there – I hope I haven’t missed any!

Age banding for Clockwork or All Wound Up?

Philip Pullman has joined many authors in speaking out against the age banding of books, so I will not provide an age recommendation for Clockwork the book! I agree that it seems like a better approach to allow children to choose books according to their interest in them rather than on age banding.

The Clockwork book is relatively short at 92 pages. It is broken up into chapters and by charming illustrations. There are also boxes of asides and information. Although it has complicated ideas and structures, the twists and turns will keep a young reader engaged and immersed in the book’s world.

Studying Clockwork’s characters and plot at Primary School

The book Clockwork is a good choice for a child who is a fairly confident reader and certainly any child who is excited by mysterious spooky stories. Clockwork is often studied in primary schools in KS2 and is a great text for exploring character development.

For less confident readers, and at home, this book can be great for an adult to read out loud or alongside the child. It’s great fun and interesting to talk through the events of the story together. The book is a rewarding read for adults too – especially for those of us who appreciate mystery and intrigue!

About the author – plus more Philip Pullman books

Philip Pullman was born in 1946 and lives in Oxfordshire. He has worked in education as well as being a prolific writer. He has written over twenty books.

Clockwork falls into a category of his books that he refers to as fairy tales, along with The Scarecrow and His Servant, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and I Was a Rat!

He is most well-known for his trilogy, His Dark Materials. The books Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are set in several alternate universes.

The trilogy begins as Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon hide in an Oxford college cupboard to listen in on a secret meeting. She learns of mysterious experiments in the North and yearns to travel there.

His Dark Materials has been made into a BBC and HBO drama. Series One was based on Northern Lights was and aired in November 2019. Series Two follows the events of The Subtle Knife and aired in November 2020.

His Dark Materials is followed by Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy, which so far contains La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth.

Over to you – what did you think of the Clockwork book by Philip Pullman

Have you read this or other books by Philip Pullman with your children? Is story-telling part of your routine and traditions? What are your favourite spooky reads? Please share in the comments below.

If you liked the Clockwork novel, you might also enjoy The Stormkeeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle. Check it out here. Find out about other children’s fantasy and magical books like this here.

Order your copy of  Clockwork: or All Wound Up here.

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Angela is the kind of parent who wants to discuss the latest hero movie or middle-grade book series on the school run. She grew up on the Lord of the Rings books and has a background in education & publishing. She believes all children & young people can enjoy wonderful story-telling and loves sharing ideas with others.


Great recommendation. Think our 9 year old will love this. Love what you say about the age banding of books. We find that our daughter will choose books which are aimed at kids that are older and younger than her. Personal preference I guess.


    Fantastic, yes, absolutely I agree it is best to let the kids choose what works for them!


It does have that traditional fairytale feel about it, especially the way bad characters get punished, sometimes in grim ways!


    Yes, I love that aspect, having grown up with stories lie Hansel and Gretl and Little Red Riding Hood, which when you think about it were certainly quite grim!

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