Too scary for grown-ups

Pulp fiction or healthy realism? Ann Treneman on the books today's kids are reading

Ann Treneman
Saturday 31 May 1997 23:02 BST

The shortlist for this year's Carnegie Medal - the major award for children's literature - reads like a social worker's nightmare. There is The Tulip Touch with its girl arsonist and Weirdo's War with its bullies. There is Secret Friends where an girl with big ears dies during cosmetic surgery and Junk with a squat full of teenage smackheads.

"Do you like reading about this stuff?" I asked my 14-year-old. She answered, as teenagers so often do, with one word: Yes.

The mostly widely read reaction from adults has been an equally short No. Newspapers reported on the "controversial list" and of claims that the shortlisted books would inflict "psychological harm"on children. But the main source of these stories was Campaign for Real Education chairman Nick Seaton, who cheerfully told me that he has not read even one of the books he dislikes so much. So why was he so critical?

"They rang me up and told me what the books were about and asked me what I thought," he said.

The second response has been a sort of love-in of the "every child should read these books" variety. Never have so many nice words been said about so many not-so-nice subjects. Words of praise fall like confetti - well- written, insightful, brilliant - and the authenticity is given a warm credit too. But what about the fact that many of the books are frightening? That is this adult's honest reaction, at least, and there is no point in assuming a child will share it. A book like Junk upset me far more than it did my 14-year-old.

This is a book about heroin and it is not all bad. In fact parts of the story are downright seductive, something that author Melvin Burgess acknowledges in a voice so soft you have to strain to hear him. "One of the reasons that people have shied away from writing about drugs is that they are attractive. I know about this scene because I lived in inner-city Bristol in the 1980s and I saw a lot of it going on. People who were very close to me were heroin addicts. I just found myself in a position to write an honest, authentic book."

He thought that the most shocking thing about the book would be the fact that it does present the good as well as the bad. Most teenage fiction has some sort of safe setting - school or home or even a camp - but not Junk. In this "live fast, die young" world there are no grown ups and none of their rules to slow the pace of destruction.

This, however, does not seem to have exercised people as much as the details of drug use. The following passage was read out recently on an afternoon radio programme. It is narrated by one of the nine main characters in the book: Tar, a 14-year-old who has fled his alcohol- and violence- ridden home to live in a druggie squat with girlfriend Gemma and her "soul sister" Lily and her baby. It sounds like a soap opera but it isn't.

"Lily was still jacking up when she was pregnant. She always used to go on about being a good mother and so did everyone around her. But how can you be a good mother on smack? And jacking up when she was breastfeeding. I've seen her. All the veins in her arms and behind her knees have gone where she's poked around with the needle so much, so she injects into the veins between her breasts. I've seen her sitting with the baby on the breast poking about to find a vein. 'Nice fat veins when your tits are big and milky,' she said. And no one said a word. That's junk. You think, if you don't say the truth, the truth somehow doesn't exist."

Melvin Burgess could not believe that someone was reading this particular truth out at 4pm on the radio. "I spent 70,000 words getting to that point with nine different viewpoints and there they are beaming it out on the air in the afternoon when the kids are home from school." His voice gets louder: "You journalists seem to get away with so much more!"

This is the prize's 60th year and one wonders if Andrew Carnegie would be turning in his grave. When he was alive books came in two categories - children and adult - and in this he is not so different from most of us with our rose-tinted memories of Emma or Jane Eyre, Peter Pan or Treasure Island. But now there is this third category of teenage literature that most adults will never read. Unlike the classics, these books exist in a Short Attention Span Syndrome world. With television, video games and the Internet as competition, it is no surprise that realism sells.

Actually, if anyone is turning in their grave it is probably Enid Blyton. The master of the incredibly detailed picnic would be shocked by this shortlist and perplexed by a recent survey by the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature. This found that young people are not looking so much for escapism or entertainment as a way to understand the world. "They consistently said that they use and need fiction because it helps them anticipate and prepare for some of the situations they may encounter as they move through adolescence to adulthood," says the centre director, Kim Reynolds.

They may want to understand but perhaps not if they've already lived through it. Nicholas Tucker is a lecturer in children's literature and psychology at Sussex University and he believes that "issue" books are not read by children with first-hand experience. "If you've had a messy divorce in the family, you don't want to read about it - you'd prefer Sweet Valley High or My Little Pony - but other children may want to. They want to know about what this is."

The Tulip Touch, if possible, seems an even darker book than Junk. Its theme is that of the Bulger case - are some children born evil? - and its central character is a girl from an appalling home who loves to play cruel tricks. These include visiting the home of a girl who has drowned and asking the mother if the girl can come out and play. Tulip also loves fires and her friend Natalie is at first as entranced as she: "Why take so many risks (to set the fire) and then walk away from all the glorious, spell-binding magic you've created? Why miss the fizzing, crackling glory of something so plain and drab exploding into fireballs and shooting stars?"

The Tulip Touch is about a form of bullying and, besides reality, this is the great theme of the shortlist. At least four of the books tackle it. Particularly graphic is Secret Friends where a girl named Lucy teases another for having big ears. "I feel like a murderer," she says when the girl dies during surgery to have her ears pinned back.

Children from Leiston Middle School in Suffolk who are shadowing the Carnegie Prize have picked two other bully books - Tulip and Weirdo's War - as their favourites. Teacher Tricia Andrews (who kept Junk out as not appropriate for 13-year-olds) wanted to know why. After all, Terry Pratchett is also on the list with Johnny and the Bomb. "They said they did not want books that started once upon a time and ended happily ever after. They want to deal with the bad things."

This is something that grown-ups are notoriously bad at. "Take drugs," says Nicholas Tucker. "We are mealy-mouthed about recreational drugs but the teenage world on a Saturday night is one of alcopops and Ecstasy. If anything that makes a book like Junk a little old-fashioned because it is talking about drugs as killers and addictive. It doesn't confront the mass use of recreational drugs we are seeing."

Margaret Paterson has been a children's librarian for 16 years and is the Carnegie's Scottish judge. She acknowledges the list is a wee bit on the dark side but makes no excuses. The book that caused a debate in her house was not Junk - her 15-year-old daughter "was addicted to reading it" - but Weirdo's War.

"The twist is that one of the bullies is a teacher. I'm not saying it made me uncomfortable but it made my husband uncomfortable because he is a teacher. But of course there are teachers like that."

Perhaps the trouble with the Carnegie shortlist is not the books but the world it reflects. Childhood still has its sunny moments but these days it also seems to linger on the dark side of the moon. This is generation that has never known anything but Aids and televisions that explode with one war or another. The world must sometimes seem as strange as the horror movies so many youngsters love to watch.

This is the only possible conclusion anyone reading the Carnegie shortlist could come to. As Melvin Burgess comments in the author's note to Junk: "All the major events in this book have happened, are happening and will no doubt continue to happen. I saw many of them myself and heard about many more. The book isn't fact; it isn't even faction. But it's all true, every word." Now that is scary.

The Carnegie Medal shortlist (winners to be picked in July)

'Junk' by Melvin Burgess: Harrowing tale of teenage descent into drug addiction. Age 15 plus

'Weirdo's War' by Michael Coleman: Tense novel about bullies. Age 10 plus

'The Tulip Touch' by Anne Fine: Charts intense friendship with a malign but charismatic girl. Age 11 plus

'Secret Friends' by Elizabeth Laird: A girl with big ears is bullied. Age 8-9

'Johnny and the Bomb' by Terry Pratchett: Time travel adventure story. Age 11 plus

'Clockwork' by Philip Pullman: Macabre tale with clockmaker who sells soul to the devil. Age 8-11

'Love in Cyberia' by Chloe Rayban: Wry look at the internet, time travel and growing up. Age 11 plus

'Bad Girls' by Jacqueline Wilson: Funny book on over-protective mums, best friends and bullies. Age 8 plus

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