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Judges take a chance on anti-heroes and heroin

Geraldine Brennan talks to the winners of this year's two top awards for outstanding books for children

The Carnegie Medal judges have left the comfort zone behind this year in awarding one of the most prestigious prizes in children's literature to the book that gave the panel the most sleepless nights.

Melvin Burgess's Junk, the story of a group of school-age heroin addicts, is one of those books people hold an opinion on without having to read it. Thanks to months of selective quoting in the media, the junkie teenage mother called Lily who shoots up while breastfeeding is a familiar figure in discussions about how much of the truth should be told in fiction for young people.

All of it, Burgess believes, including the bits that adults don't want told. Junk is as honest about the attractions of drug culture as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. A 13-year-old would find more bad language and less moral context in Trainspotting.

Burgess has worked hard at his moral context. "The characters who advocate heroin are barmy and the effects are awful. Lily, for example, is exciting, charismatic and glamorous but you also know she's a bit bonkers." The character that he leaves with the most hope of beating junk is Gemma, who has the most stable family background.

"Part of the function of novels for adolescents is to put the dark, difficult and embarrassing side of life into context," Burgess says. This can mean they occupy difficult ground on children's publishers' lists.

"There's a strong argument that if I'd published Junk for adults I'd have reached my intended audience in greater numbers. Teenage fiction is just beginning to form and how it is packaged needs more thought. The books really need to be designed by people who do CD covers."

He wants to tackle "the areas that aren't touched, that are difficult to talk about in the territory of school or home" and Junk has not kept a toehold on this relatively safe (although sometimes scary) fictional territory. For the junkies, school is a distant memory and parents are absent, useless or despised.

Burgess's concern with those surviving on society's margins started with his first book, The Cry of the Wolf, the tale of the last wolf in England. The Baby and Fly Pie is about a gang of scavengers living on their wits in a not-too-distant dystopian London. Burning Issy, which deals with the persecution of witches in the 17th century, Loving April and An Angel for May all show how communities make non-conformists suffer.

The Baby and Fly Pie and Loving April are at least as unsettling as Junk in the way they reveal how easily loyalties splinter under pressure, but generated no controversy on publication. But then the magic word, "drugs", was missing.

Burgess is working on the next magic word. "There is not yet a book about sex as young people really see it," he said wistfully. "I would like to take the lid off the sexual brain of a 14-year-old boy - what is going on in there?" The continuing supply of fodder for moral outrage is in safe hands.

Junk is published by Andersen and Penguin. Anne Fine was highly commended for The Tulip Touch (Hamish Hamilton); Terry Pratchett was commended for Johnny and the Bomb (Doubleday)

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