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

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy