A 'well-informed drugs story' on the Carnegie Medal shortlist has brought children's fiction into the spotlight, writes Geraldine Brennan
Melvin Burgess may well have exceeded the expectations of most living children's writers in attracting more column inches than Enid Blyton this year.
She wrote more than 700 books, he is up to seven. His latest is Junk, a traumatic tale of young heroin addicts, currently at the centre of a debate on what constitutes fit reading for teenagers.
Junk is one of eight novels on the shortlist for the major children's literature award, the Carnegie Medal. In the month since the list was announced, the books and their authors have attracted an unprecedented level of interest from the mainstream media, which generally ignores contemporary children's fiction in favour of the dead, especially Blyton and Roald Dahl. Whoever wins the prize (the winner will be announced on July 16), the level of informed interest in children's private reading has been given a boost.
Critics, including the Campaign for Real Education pressure group, have expressed concern at the hard-hitting content of Junk and other hot favourites on the shortlist: Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch ponders the nature of evil while exploring the psyche of a child arsonist, Elizabeth Laird's Secret Friends sees a bullies' victim die during cosmetic surgery.
As the debate rumbles on, it is noticeable that the commentators are now reading the books.
The panel of librarians which awards the Carnegie Medal alongside the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustrators is looking for quality of writing rather than successful treatment of issues. Although half the titles on the shortlist deal with bullying, for example, this is not representative of the year's publishing output - they were all chosen from a much longer list.
A review in The TES last year said Junk was "a rare creature - a well-informed drugs story" but also "a superbly crafted book". Set in Bristol in the early 1980s, it draws its cast of self-deluding but strangely charismatic school-age junkies from the author's acquaintances in heroin-using circles. He did not touch the stuff himself, he says, "although I have certainly done my substances".
Now 43, he lives in Lancashire with his son and writes every morning. He has been writing since he was 20, supporting himself with bouts of building work and fabric marbling. Andersen Press published his first novel, The Cry of the Wolf, in 1990.
He is passionate about young readers' rights to the full picture - the lure and glamour of drug culture as well as the misery, crime and early death, all of which are documented in Junk.
"At the age of 14 to 15 - the time when you're most looking forward to life - drugs seem fun and glamorous. If you try to pretend otherwise kids will know someone is lying. Heroin still has glamour attached to it. It is the most popular drug among top models - it gives you that thin, wasted, ill look.
"Writers can't win with a subject like this - if you come out on one side or the other you're finger-wagging, if you don't you're immoral.
"There is an argument between innocence and experience. You have to protect children because they're innocent. But whatever it is that makes them innocent, it's not ignorance.
"Novels are one way in which you can unify information and experience. They should be able to be more frank and more explicit than other media because you can put the information in context. But as children's writers, we have to be more careful than anyone else. The quality and frankness of the information we give is more closely watched."
Junk, published in paperback by Penguin (rather than Puffin, the children's imprint), looks trendy enough to attract the sort of readers who will benefit - bright but bored 15-year-olds who might think it would be fun to leave home, live in a squat and take drugs. Gemma, one of the central characters in Junk, thinks the same at 14, and becomes a prostitute to support her habit before finally seeking help.
And what if a curious 10-year-old picks Burgess's book up? He argues that the complex story structure with its nine different narrators will deter readers who are not ready for the content long before they reach the more disturbing passages.
"By the time you're mature enough not to be bored by it, you're mature enough to cope. And I believe it's time to be much tougher about underestimating children."
He dismisses the recent flurry of criticism as "ritual flogging with ribbons" but is concerned that fear of retribution from parents will lead to teachers keeping potentially controversial books under wraps.
"To anyone who's worried about what someone else will think, I would simply say don't be. We have to do what we're always telling children to do, and stand up to the bullies."
Carnegie Medal Shortlist
* Junk by Melvin Burgess (Andersen)
* Weirdo's War by Michael Coleman (Orchard)
* The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine (Hamish Hamilton)
* Secret Friends by Elizabeth Laird (Hodder)
* Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday)
* Clockwork by Philip Pullman (Doubleday)
* Love in Cyberia by Chlo Rayban (Bodley Head)
* Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson (Doubleday)