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The force of fiction takes on pester power

IT WAS not the easiest of interviews. We were at the bar of the Rainforest Cafe in London, surrounded by plastic foliage, fake gorillas and excited children, and I was speaking to a man from the Daily Mail about the Smarties Prize for children's fiction, for which I was one of five adult judges.

Of the nine books that had been shortlisted, my interviewer had looked at "bits" of one of them - a book that was called Angus, Thongs and Full- Frontal Snogging and had been written by Louise Renniston.

The Mail, of course, had an agenda. Every year, without fail, an excited, appalled story will appear in its pages whenever a prize for children's books is announced. Sometimes it is the political- correctness story. Often - and this was where Renniston was in trouble - an author stands accused of betraying the innocence of our kids.

There had, in fact, already been a certain amount of fuss about this year's prize. The adult judges had reduced the 259 entries to a shortlist of three books for three separate age groups, which were then sent out to 200 classes for the final verdict and votes of several thousand children.

But the problem had been that, in the nine-11 category, two of the books had found disfavour with a primary school in Lancashire, whose head had decided that Renniston's teenage diary was inappropriate - while another book, David Almond's brilliant Kit's Wilderness, presented death "in a way opposite to the ethos of a Catholic primary school".

The school withdrew from the judging, as did two other schools, and controversy among the many great and good of children's books broke out in the book- trade press and on the Internet.

There was something odd, but also weirdly reassuring, about all this. It seems that many people - not just paranoiac Daily Mail readers, but serious, good-hearted parents and teachers - are more afraid of the power of fiction on young minds than of any other influence.

Shyster advertising executives can spend millions on TV commercials specifically designed to brainwash children with "pester power"; asinine game-shows and lottery extravaganzas can present a fantasy world in which financial greed is natural and desirable - and no one turns a hair. But as soon as writers attempt to help children to make sense of the world in which they live through fiction, then all hell breaks loose.

The fact is that a story - whether it be humorous, like Angus, Things and Full-Frontal Snogging (which is a funnier diary, incidentally, than that of Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones), serious, like Kit's Wilderness, or simply a great fantasy, like JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - is far more helpful to children than a proselytising education documentary, or a sensational television soap. It is more effective in enabling them to understand and work out for themselves some of the complexities that confront them.

The best children's book-writers understand this and realise that the type of safe, fairyland fiction advocated by all those fretting, concerned parents and experts is invariably worthy - but also lifeless.

So, 259 books later, I can confidently recommend the Smarties shortlist to those with Christmas in mind: for older readers, Harry Potter, Angus, Kit's Wilderness (if they read well) and - not included on the list but alsoworth recommending - Jacqueline Wilson's The Illustrated Mum.

For six- to-eight-year-olds, Lauren Child's picture book Clarice Bean, That's Me, Emily Smith's Astrid, The Au Pair from Outer Space and Anholt and Robins' Snow White and the Seven Aliens; and, for under -fives, Bob Graham's Buffy, Lydia Monks's I Wish I Were a Dog and Davidson and Scheffler's The Gruffalo.

In these books lies the best antidote to pester power.