Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
I’ve been reading a lot of YA (young adult) and children’s fiction lately, as part of the ‘Writing for Children and Young People’ module on the Writing MA. In the final session of the unit, our class read The Bunker Diary: Kevin Brooks’ controversial tale of six strangers chloroformed, kidnapped and locked in an underground bunker by an anonymous assailant. The novel won the 2014 Carnegie Medal, and it is this accolade which has been at the centre of most discussions of the novel ever since (including the discussion had by our little seminar group). The crux of the argument is this: if a novel as bleak and disturbing (i.e. so adult) as TBD can win the most prestigious of children’s fiction prizes, what exactly defines good children’s literature in the first place?
And the content of TBD certainly is bleak. There’s suicide, rape, murder – even a suggestion of cannibalism. And all this within the overarching plot-line of abduction, laced with physical and psychological torture. Content wise, it couldn’t get much darker. No one survives: not the goodies, not the baddies. The abductor is never identified, never confronted and never gets his comeuppance. Even Emma Donoghue’s Room saw the victims escape. I’m still uncertain as to why Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but TBD won the Carnegie. There’s an argument, I suppose, that the characters inRoom are more complex, that the perspective is more creative. But this doesn’t ring true for me. In terms of creativity and complexity, Room is reduced to dust in the face of His Dark Materials and Lord of the Rings. Superior creativity and complexity alone then, cannot be the measure of what turns YA fiction into full blown literature.
Many critics argue that the issue here is TBD’s lack of hope. Amanda Craig of The Independent wrote that children’s lit should teach children that their “experiences will enable them to restore justice”, accusing TBD of a “lack of redemption”. I’m not sure whether I agree or not that children’s literature should ultimately be uplifting and hopeful, and that all experiences represented within should be meaningful fables. It’s certainly not what all children experience in their real lives. But aside from that, I can’t say that I agree that TBD is bereft of redemption or lacking in hope. Yes, the content is bleak: including the ending. But it’s the tone that is significant here. I found the voice of Linus – the ‘author’ of the diary – utterly, heart-breakingly uplifting. Linus’ response to his captivity is to pour love into his relationship with Jenny, a little girl who he becomes a pseudo-father figure to, look after her and stay strong on her behalf. Furthermore, Linus bonds with Fred and Russell, and their sense of solidarity and mutual respect abides until death do they part. They refuse to suspect one another, apportion blame or commit murder to please their captor. The message here is that the human spirit is fundamentally good. It is the same message as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas: bad things happen in the world but we don’t need to lose our humanity if and when they do. What could be more uplifting, more hopeful than that? It’s quite the opposite of the message at the heart of Lord Of The Flies, and we’ve been teaching that at GCSE for decades.
Ultimately, I’m reluctant to agree with an ideology which seems to suggest that children are anything other than smaller, less experienced adults. They’re interested in a lot of things, in the boundaries of the world and its workings, and I can’t see how piquing that curiosity through literature could be a bad thing. Rejecting and censoring literature with such a warm P.O.V – just because the ‘V’ in question is so bleak – seems patronising and foolish to me. If you want to start censoring something with a bleak P.O.V, start with internet porn, which, by the way, pre-teens can reach far more quickly (and far more independently) than they can reach their local library.
Children don’t need sheltering from nasty things, is my ultimate opinion. They will come face to face with nasty things eventually, and what they perhaps do need before that happens is a range of strong, compassionate role models to aspire to and model themselves on. In Linus, Russell, and to an extent Fred and Jenny, The Bunker Diary offers young people just that. For me, that’s enough to mark it as a good YA read, but I’m not sure I’ve answered the question of what exactly defines it as YA fiction yet. Answers on a postcard for that one, please.