The teen sleuth hero with Asperger

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Mark Haddon's fresh and moving mystery story beguiled judges of the new Booktrust award for young adult fiction, writes Geraldine Brennan

The UK's first award for young adult fiction has gone to Mark Haddon's exciting, funny and moving mystery told in the voice of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome.

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time - narrated by Christopher, a Sherlock Holmes fan, takes its title from Conan Doyle's story Silver Blaze. It has already snapped up the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and narrowly missed the Man Booker shortlist.

Now it has beaten Melvin Burgess's Doing It and six other shortlisted books, including new novels by Alan Gibbons and Lynne Reid Banks, to win the Booktrust Teenage Prize for young adult fiction, in which teenage readers make up half of the judging panel of 10.

It emerged as one of the key books of 2003 soon after publication in January on both children's and adult lists, when it proved to have equal appeal to both young and adult readers.

The Booktrust judges included English teacher Jo Klaces, who is taking a sabbatical year from St Philip's sixth-form centre, part of South Birmingham college. She read more than 50 novels for 14 to 16-year-olds during the summer, alongside reading for an MA in literary linguistics at Birmingham university.

She said of Mark Haddon's book: "It breaks new ground in so many ways: stylistically, the story, the persona it adopts to tell the story. It is funny and touching while dealing with difficult situations and relationships. While it does give us a lot of information about Asperger Syndrome, it is story-driven rather than issue-driven."

The book's central character, Christopher, lives with his father, who has told him that his mother is dead. When he finds that a neighbour's poodle has been killed with a garden fork, his investigations, carried out in the most brutally logical manner, reveal cracks in his parents' marriage and in his other key relationships including that with his teacher Siobhan.

He has a unique view of the world: pondering the nature of the Milky Way is easier for him than understanding a metaphor in a sentence and he believes that the number of red cars he spots indicates how his day will go.

Like Raymond Babbitch, Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Rain Man (although not like every child with Asperger) he turns to mathematical and scientific problems for relief; Mr Haddon - also a maths whiz at school - includes a table of prime numbers.

He is the author of another 15 books for younger readers after an earlier career as a cartoonist. He admits to having no specialist knowledge of Asperger Syndrome, although he has worked as a volunteer with adults with mental health problems.

He is overcome with the success of the Curious Incident: "Above all, by the letters I've had from readers, some who know something about Asperger Syndrome and some who don't, telling me that I have written something they want to read."

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon is published by David Fickling Books and Jonathan Cape, price pound;10.99.

See www.bookheads.org.uk for details about the award, reading ideas and resources for teenagers

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