‘Vile’ teen book scoops prestigious prize
A disturbing teen novel by Kevin Brooks, about a boy who is held hostage, has just been awarded one of literature’s most important prizes. Is young adult fiction becoming too dark?
‘A uniquely sickening read,’ declared one furious critic. ‘Distressingly dark,’ cried another. These are just two of many negative reviews about the winning young adult novel of this year’s Cilip Carnegie Medal – ‘The Bunker Diary’ by Kevin Brooks.
On Monday it was announced that this fictional account of a boy kidnapped and held hostage in a bunker had won the oldest award in children’s literature. Repeatedly rejected by publishers due to its ‘lack of hope’, it took ten years for the book to make it into print.
But Brooks’s own happy success has caused a row in literary circles, due to his novel’s distinctly unhappy conclusion.
The book is the diary of Linus, a 17-year-old boy lured from the streets of London and imprisoned underground by a sinister stranger. Duped and drugged, Linus is trapped with five other captives, one of them a heroin addict, another dying of a brain tumour and a third dying after an attack by a vicious dog. In front of surveillance cameras, the six must perform perverse and deadly tasks to try and win back their freedom.
It is not the first time the judging panel has awarded the medal to a bleak novel. A string of harrowing fables have scooped the top prize in recent years. Sally Gardner’s depiction of a dystopian era in ‘Maggot Moon’ won last year and Patrick Ness’s ‘A Monster Calls’ – about a boy who watches his mother die of cancer – was the winner the year before.
But perhaps most controversial of all was Melvin Burgess’s 1996 winner ‘Junk’; a dark account of two teenage runaways who become squatters and drug addicts. The book won Burgess great critical and commercial success, but it also prompted outrage from some voices in the right-wing press who feared his novel might encourage drug abuse among young people.
Some are appalled that ‘The Bunker Diary’ has won such an important prize. Just like video games and films, books seem to increasingly use the sensationalism of drugs, sex and violence to shock their audiences and shift huge numbers of copies. This could, in the words of one critic, endanger ‘the happiness and moral development’ of teenagers. Besides, it is patronising to suggest young adults need to learn that the world can be a dark place; they know this already. What they need more from books is hope.
But others say that it can be comforting for young people to read disturbing content, especially those who have witnessed tragedy or suffered violence themselves. The popular Twitter hashtag #YAsaves, adopted by thousands of teens to express their feelings that reading books about trauma has ‘saved’ them, is proof that even the darkest novels can be a force for good.
- Do you prefer books with a happy or a sad ending? Or does the book just have to be a good read?
- Is young adult fiction today too dark and disturbing?
- In groups, make a list of books you have read recently. Briefly write next to each title a summary of the content, and report back to the class on whether the books are mostly sad, uplifting or both.
- Choose a book you have read recently, and write a 250-word news report on the events and characters depicted.
Some People Say...
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story.’C.S. Lewis”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why does it matter whether some books are dark?
- Some critics are concerned that there are now too many dark novels in the young adult fiction market making teens unhappy. Many have no warning about their content on their covers. But others say that it is patronising to assume that young people cannot decide for themselves what they should or should not read.
- I don’t really like reading, does that matter?
- Sometimes it can be difficult to find time to read and there are many other distractions to drag us away from a good book. But reading encourages literacy skills which are essential for everyday life. Books develop our minds and introduce us to new ideas. Above all, reading is a pleasure that allows us to meet fascinating characters and escape to imaginary worlds.
- Cilip Carnegie Medal
- Previous winners include C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Arthur Ransome, Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman. The prize was established by in 1936 in memory of the Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who set up more than 2,800 libraries across the English-speaking world.
- An imagined place in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian state. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ are both good examples of literary dystopias. The opposite is utopia; an idealistic vision of the perfect society.
- Melvin Burgess
- ‘Junk’ was a bestseller in many countries, translated into 28 different languages and adapted for TV and the stage. Burgess is often described as the ‘godfather’ of young adult fiction in Britain.
- Defenders of young adult literature gathered online to share their views with the hashtag at the rate of one-tweet-per-nanosecond in 2011, after a piece in the Wall Street Journal attacked YA fiction for being too dark.