Slimy jeremiads of a serial killer: Christina Hardyment looks with dismay at the books shortlisted for the Carnegie medal

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Whatever happened to children's literature? This year no fewer than four of the books shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal open with desperate teenage urchins crawling through slime and grime to get away from brutish adults. The venerable gold seal of approval (first won in 1937 by Arthur Ransome's Pigeon Post) was awarded on Wednesday to the gloomiest and nastiest of the lot: Robert Swindell's book about a serial killer who preys upon young homeless runaways camping in London street doorways, and relieves society of their inconvenient presence by lining up their bodies, heads shaven and in uniform, under the floorboards of his house.

Stone Cold (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 8.99) is best summarised as the sort of nightmare an 11-year-old might have after watching the news: a crazy amalgam of a sensitive and socially aware item by Polly Toynbee on what it is really like to be sleeping rough in London, cross-cut with the latest body count from the police taking apart a certain house in Gloucester. The book ends inconclusively: its young anti-hero's girlfriend saves him but leaves him; she is merely in search of a journalistic scoop.

As a cautionary documentary about teenage runaways, it is undoubtedly informative, often sympathetic, though chillingly hopeless. It will be handed out by well- meaning RE teachers as a guide for discussion in those awkward general studies lessons that are supposed to teach children values. Great literature it is not, by any definition. It does not raise the spirits, engage sympathy for its characters, or provide what one of last year's judges said the Carnegie winner should do, 'the sort of quality that will deeply influence a person's life'. If this is the best of this year's books for children, then we cannot blame kids for turning back with a sigh of relief to Nintendo and Neighbours.

What are the panel of librarians who chose it - admittedly on a split vote - dreaming of? Are they so fed up with having their budgets cut that they have decided to commit hara-kiri and put off anyone from going to libraries at all? I suspect them to be governed by a mixture of motives, all more to do with political correctness than literary quality.

First, shocking the media is good publicity for the Library Association, and its sponsors, Peters Library Service. Secondly, the two most recent Carnegie winners have been to do with teenage pregnancies. The time is ripe for a boy's book - and everybody knows that the lads only read books with blood and gore and sex in. One of the defences for the choice of Stone Cold is that children are grabbing it from each other to read in the classroom. But there are other things children are grabbing from each other - Judy Blume's emotionless sex manual, Forever, the videos of Child's Play and Silence of the Lambs. Does this mean that teachers should put their seal of approval on them too?

What about the author? 55-year- old Robert Swindell, a Zen Buddhist who lives in a caravan on the Yorkshire moors, 'started this novel in anger, having been outraged by Sir George Young's speech about the homeless being 'the sort of people you step on when you come out of the opera' ', and 'feels passionately that we need to tackle the problem of homelessness'. So why isn't he putting his efforts into evangelising among a constituency that can do something about it, rather than scaremongering in schools? Why, at the very least, doesn't he offer children some mechanism for redemption in the book itself?

To be fair to Swindell, he is by no means the only children's author obsessed with social breakdown. The whole tribe of children's writers and librarians are chronically over-anxious. Someone needs to bend their horrified gaze from the tabloid headlines, and give them a few statistics about the audiences that they are writing for and choosing books to please. Over 80 per cent of children under 16 (over 90 per cent of under fives) live with both their natural parents. A surprisingly large number belong to organisations such as the scouts, guides or a youth club, work hard to earn pocket money, and will get jobs when they leave school. Very few indeed are sexually promiscuous, and teenage pregnancies are falling. More than 70 per cent of households now describe themselves as middle class.

Even if Stone Cold was a great book, I think that we ought to be asking ourselves what we are saying to our children by describing it as 'the outstanding children's book of the year'. My own 14-year- old and 17-year-old daughters, brought up to regard the annual Carnegie as a reliably good read, were genuinely shocked that it won. Children need inspiration, not jeremiads. They need supportive Captain Flints on the quarterdecks of their onward-going ships of life, not Cassandras mouthing doom and gloom.

There is in fact plenty of hope for children on the Carnegie shortlist. The thousands who are already hooked on Terry Pratchett will ignore the winners altogether and go for his latest hilarious, witty and socially aware jeu d'esprit set in a redundant London graveyard, Johnny and The Dead. The two commended books, Jenny Nimmo's The Stone Mouse (Walker, pounds 2.99) and Anne Merrick's Someone Came Knocking (Spindlewood, pounds 9.95) are everything children's books should be; both linger in the mind like good champagne. Finally, the Carnegie Medal's running mate, the Kate Greenaway award for the best illustrated book of the year, has been won by Rosemary Sutcliffe's marvellous retelling of the Trojan Wars, Black Ships Before Troy (Frances Lincoln, pounds 12.99), finished just before her death in 1992 and illustrated by inspiring and sensitive paintings by Alan Lee.

Judges need to be able to compare like with like. It is time that the Library Assocation faced up to the new phenomenon of didactic teenage fiction (schools, for the use of), and treated it separately. Invent an award for such books by all means - the golden Doc Martin, perhaps. But reserve the Carnegie Medal for its original purpose: 'the outstanding children's book of the year'.

(Photograph omitted)