Yes, this is a comment piece (as distinct from the commentary in our reviews)!
Kevin Brooks’ chilling, The Bunker Diary won this year’s Carnegie medal, which awards an outstanding book for children. The novel is the diary of a kidnapped boy, the tale is bleak, its grit relentless. This is not the sort of novel I am drawn to yet I selected it as part of my personal shortlist for this year’s medal. This was very much despite the plot and very much about the writing and the form (you can read my review, which denies the plot). While The Bunker Diary is shocking, I don’t think it is ‘shock factor’ writing, and I think it’s a worthy winner bravely chosen by the judges.
The Telegraph, online, questioned whether the Carnegie judges had overstepped the mark in awarding this novel because it is unrelentlessly and unremorsefully dark. Additionally, the opinion piece berated the publishers for the book cover’s lack of content guidance.
The CILIP Carnegie shortlist provides age guidance for each book on the shortlist to help inform readers. This is available on their website. The Bunker Diary is marked as 14+, and with my parent hat on, that sounds about right to me. I’m keen on informative content guidance, so I do agree with The Telegraph on that.
However, the Carnegie medal awards an outstanding children’s book. The book has to be first published as a children’s book. The Bunker Diary fulfils these criteria. But, I read Bradbury’s comment piece as really raising questions about tone: should the Carnegie be setting a tone for children’s literature?
In his acceptance speech, Brooks spoke about the question of hope, which many commentators say is lacking in The Bunker Diary. Brooks disagrees with this view but, to him, this is a subsidiary issue anyway. Ultimately, and arguably controversially, he believes that ‘hope’ and happy endings are not a pre-requisite for children’s literature. I, now a legal adult for many years, quite like hope in anything I read, but a lack of hope doesn’t necessarily affect literary quality (but it may affect a reader’s appreciation).
We started this blog just over two years ago when Little M was twelve. We thought we knew what children’s literature was: something entertaining and something excitingly exploratory – but with a safety net. But we knew that young adult fiction (targeted at children) was something slightly different – we suspected the net had moved. Without reading it (which she hadn’t and I hadn’t for about twenty years), we could tell this from the covers. They often looked more like something you’d find on the adult genre shelves or on a movie poster. Actually, most of the cover-facing books probably were movie tie-ins! Both of us were very much in favour of knowing ‘what’ was in these books. Yes, we mean sex, drugs, violence, and their degree of graphic depiction and, importantly for me, a subtextual worldview.
Two years later, we’ve decided that YA is very much a free-for-all with a teenage protagonist. And to me, that’s fine – just tell us on the cover: not for the adults who read YA, or the fourteen years olds; do it for the sake of those who’ve just finished reading The Famous Five. Because after all, YA is widely considered children’s literature and we don’t want to start censoring teenage content….or do we?
The Bunker Diary is a challenging read. It covers difficult and abhorrent subject matter, it smashes a reader’s expectations of story structure and of a children’s book (let’s be honest, this is young adult fiction not middle grade), and it provides avenues for questions about all sorts of things, including literary ones. For me, that’s the tone that this year’s Carnegie win has set and it has nothing to do with light or dark.
Read my review of The Bunker Diary.
Read my interview with Kevin Brooks.
The Telegraph piece.