A Week in Books: Judging adolescents

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In the censorious world of schools, streets and juvenile courts, adolescent boys generally get the blame. Send them up before the beaks who decide on literary prizes, however, and they flourish as never before. Giving Mark Haddon the Whitbread Book of the Year Award on Tuesday, Joan Bakewell - as chair of that particular bench of judges - noted that three out of the five contenders featured teenage or immediately pre-teen male heroes.

On the night, Haddon's maths-fixated, Asperger's-afflicted 15-year-old investigator from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time ran out ahead of DBC Pierre's loquacious Texan tearaway on death row (Vernon God Little), and of the plucky, bright Northumbrian kid who survives both local and global crisis in David Almond's The Fire-Eaters. Even Don Paterson, whose poetry collection Landing Light lost by a whisker to Haddon in the final Whitbread vote, is no stranger to the theme of boys becoming men.

It's not merely the lads who benefit from our literary love-affair with rite-of-passage tales. Girls, too, have become favoured fictional voices as writers craft subtle combinations of innocence, insight and - sometimes - sheer delusion. For many months, Alice Sebold's impersonation of a murdered teenager in The Lovely Bones commanded the bestseller lists. Donna Tartt's 12-year-old Mississippi sleuth, from The Little Friend, mixes precocity with fantasy. In Atonement, Ian McEwan's 13-year-old apprentice author - deeply perceptive, and deeply mistaken - wrecks surrounding adult lives with her childish plots. Meanwhile, the young victim of a high-school massacre (that keynote event of contemporary American culture) posthumously unfolds the secrets of the living in Douglas Coupland's latest novel, Hey Nostradamus!

Male or female, right or wrong, alive or dead - the young narrator rules. Pitched between knowledge and ignorance, wisdom and folly, such protagonists have attracted discerning writers - and, I suspect, discerning readers too - since the era of Charles Dickens and Henry James. After all, their cherishable mish-mash of observation and fabrication belongs squarely in the twilight zone of "true lies" that all powerful fiction should inhabit.

In The Curious Incident..., young Christopher Boone - a fearless wizard while safe among the iron laws of number - shies away from made-up stories. "Proper novels" count as "lies about things which didn't happen," he complains, "and they make me feel shaky and scared". (But he's perfectly content when reading Chaos by James Gleick!) Well, adult readers often enjoy feeling shaky and scared - and writers like to make them feel that way.

It would be far too glib to explain away this brood of enchantingly unreliable narrators as a by-product of our confusion about the boundaries of childhood. These literary kids exert an appeal that exceeds nostalgia, or escapism, or mere adult self-hatred. However partial, they offer an outsider's verdict on grown-up passion and pretension. And we evidently want to learn from these resident aliens; these Martians in the living-room. For a change, such novels even expect the reader to do a little work.

Coincidentally, Penguin Classics has just reissued one of the finest of all child's-eye testaments to adult love and loss: LP Hartley's The Go-Between (£7.99). Looking back in wonder and regret, its narrator Leo describes his younger self as "a foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language but compelled to listen to it". Just the same, of course, applies to Haddon's Christopher. And such foreigners will sometimes spot what the natives conspire to ignore. In the courts and the classrooms, we judge adolescents. In much of today's bestselling fiction, they judge us.