‘Vile and dangerous’: or, how to get our kids reading

Beware of the book road signCarnegie medal winner blasted as ‘vile and dangerous’. Could there be a better review for a YA author? Kevin Brookes (and his publishers) must be delighted.

Some background: on 23 June the Carnegie and Greenaway medals, the oldest and most prestigious awards given to children’s books, were announced. The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks won the Carnegie, and all power and congratulations to Kevin. I haven’t yet read the book, but even if I hadn’t already intended to that headline would send me straight to an online bookshop. As it will teenagers.

Oh Daily Telegraph, don’t you get it? Call a book for young adults (young adults, note, not young children) ‘vile and dangerous’ and every teenager in town will want to read it! It was ever thus: in 1997, Junk, Melvin Burgess’s story of teenage heroin addicts, won the Carnegie, and was predicted to herald an epidemic of copy-cat drug users. Back in my teenage day, Judy Blume’s Forever was banned by my school library from under-14s, presumably to prevent us from having sex. (What actually happened is that we got the older kids to take it out for us then passed it round the class, along with The Thorn Birds, Lace and James Herbert’s The Rats. Most of us didn’t have sex afterwards).

With all the brow-beating and hair-tearing going on in the UK at the moment about how to get our kids to read, why does our media get so hysterical about something that kids might want to read? Or should they only read what certain adults deem suitable for them to read? Young adults are exactly that – adults, who are young, and just like adults they can make choices and form opinions of their own. If they don’t like The Bunker Diary they’ll stop reading it, but, you know what Daily Telegraph? If you hadn’t branded it as unsuitable, more of them wouldn’t have bothered reading it in the first place.

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6 thoughts on “‘Vile and dangerous’: or, how to get our kids reading

  1. So true. The literal-minded approach is very frustrating. Young people can appreciate a book as a work of fiction, they don’t assume it’s a manual for how to live! It’s patronising and un imaginative to say that adults should protect teenagers from “dark” books. Often, it’s the adults that can’t cope with them, emotionally. Perhaps books without hope are worse for us, because we’re closer to death and need more cheering up? 🙂 I know I could deal with darkness better aged 15 than aged 35. A Clockwork Orange was one of my favourite books back then…

    I do think there’s a good point to be made re whether the Carnegie should have separate MG and YA categories though, so younger fiction gets more attention in this vv prestigious (ie people outside publishing care about it) award.

    • Thanks Louie – I can’t disagree with any of that! I also think there’s a debate about Carnegie categories. I’m looking to shadow it with primary-aged students next year, and we would have needed to choose very carefully from this year’s list to get something suitable for and relevant to them.

      • I think the publishing industry does have a tendency to get obsessed with trends (like all industries – groupthink has a lot of sway). So, in the current climate of YA prominence (esp in the media), 8-12 books are getting somewhat pushed aside. I do think that’s changing though. Just hope there’s not an overcorrection given that i’m writing a YA at the moment! 😀

  2. While I’m no supporter (or even reader) of the Daily Telegraph, I think its headline does raise an interesting issue. The book is branded ‘vile and dangerous’ because people worry about what young people are exposed to.

    Should we worry? Or should we just let them read what they like? If the latter, why do we bother having a YA category anyway? Why do you write YA stories – what creative decisions do you take on the basis that you’re writing for a young adult and not just an adult? (These are genuine questions, not a challenge!)

    I expect YA readers and their parents/teachers use the YA branding as a ‘gatekeeper’ on their behalf, like the 9 o’clock watershed. If people are using it as some kind of ‘PG’ rating, then don’t they have the right to challenge what is let through?

    Yes, it can be patronising to decide what dark subjects are suitable for YA readers, and to assume they can’t make the distinctions between fiction and real life, but if we’re really honest, don’t we all draw the line somewhere at what we think young adults ‘can’ read? Isn’t that why a YA category exists?

    Are there some general rules/guidelines that novels that brand themselves YA should adhere to? If so, does that mean (forgive me) that the DT has a point?… Even if it’s wrong about this particular book, could it be justified in challenging other books in the YA category?

    I’m not expecting all the answers, but I think it’s an interesting debate to have. It’s easy to mock the DT for being reactionary and uncool, but I do think the headline raises issues that aren’t as clear-cut as we’d like to think.

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