Could reading dark literature harm your teenage children?
The Carnegie Medal is possibly the most prestigious children's book award, but this year it courted controversy by choosing Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary.
It's a grim, nihilistic story: a group of teens is held hostage by a sadistic maniac who forces them to play brutal games. Rife with pain, misery, addiction, attempted rape, abuse and death, it's been lambasted by several critics – one described it as "uniquely sickening".
Dark, depressing or difficult stories are hot right now: look at the gigantic success of The Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies, or last year's Carnegie medallist, Maggot Moon. But does Brooks' book cross the line? And is there such a thing as "too dark", even in the Young Adult genre which is explicitly aimed at older teens?
Catherine Creedon works in the Children's Library in Grand Parade, Cork (the Carnegie is awarded by a UK librarian association). She says, "I'm not sure The Bunker Diary is too dark or violent for teens; they're constantly fed a diet of blood-letting on TV and in cinema, games and music. However, it's a young adult book that won what was originally a children's prize, and it's too dark a book for under-12s.
"Ultimately, all children have to be judged individually: for their reading age and emotional level. Literature is meant to make us question the world around us, to help us understand issues that we might not normally encounter in our daily round; if you start getting into whether books are 'appropriate' or not, you enter the realm of censorship.
"The best thing is for parents to get involved in their children's reading life, be aware of what they're reading, and discuss content with them. There is no 'should': as long as young people are reading, they're exercising their brains, and will have better educational prognosis, better communications skills, and be more mature."
Elaina Ryan is Director of Children's Books Ireland. "It's a complex argument," she says. "The Bunker Diary is well-written and thought-provoking but very intense, gruesome and, in the end, devoid of hope. Not a book for children, nor intended to be – the cover with its stark image and strapline implies that this is challenging and unsettling. I don't argue it will appeal to every reader, nor could I say it's unsuitable for teenagers.
"As a teenager I read about all kinds of issues in fiction, sometimes uncomfortable. It didn't inspire any worrying behaviours in me, or lead to bleak situations. Fiction can allow a young person to explore these ideas and their feelings around them in a safe, protected way."
Galway novelist Deirdre Sullivan won CBI Book of the Year in 2011; her latest novel, Primperfect, is just out. She says, "I don't feel qualified to comment on Bunker until I've read it, but I believe in letting readers decide for themselves. Kids are able to handle more than people think. They're thirsty for stories, and need to read about the dark side to prepare them for adulthood and foster a social conscience. However, parents should be aware of what their children read and be prepared to discuss troubling subjects with them. I don't care what kids read as long as they're reading."
It could also be argued that darkness has an old heritage – older even than books themselves. Deirdre adds, "If you look at storytelling traditions, we have The Children of Lir, Deirdre of the Sorrows, The Tain. Or further afield, the Grimm tales. Stories were used to prepare children for the dangers of the world outside, to allow them feel 'safe' terror and empathise with people who suffer."
Catherine says: "Darkness in children's literature traditionally serves a purpose, to warn children of potentially dangerous situations and 'watch out for the big bad wolf'. Bunker doesn't really do that: it's not very realistic and ends rather pointlessly. All this book teaches readers is – don't talk to another person ever again, in case they kidnap you and put you in a bunker to die."
It's possible for a book to be dark and worthwhile or justifiable, though it all depends on the individual. Elaina cites Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy: "It is beautiful and sad and exciting and dark, with fantastic characters, complex relationships and choices. These are books for young people, though not every young person. Likewise, Clonakilty writer Louise O'Neill's debut, Only Ever Yours, is sinister in content. I loved it, but not everybody will – there's no such thing as a universal recommendation."
Deirdre says, "My own books deal with the loss of a parent to a drunk driver. There's darkness and light in them – kids need both. Life has both. Primperfect opens with the protagonist and her friends breaking into a cemet-ery to bury a dead rat in her mother's grave ... but not in a dark way!
"I love Roald Dahl, there's a lovely malevolent glee to him. I also like Siobhan Parkinson's work a lot, and Paula Leyden for books about with the dark side of everyday life. Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels is some of the darkest young adult fiction I've ever read but it's also pure, lovely – and disturbing – poetry."
Even books for younger readers can get the blend right, she adds: "Jon Klassen's Who Stole My Hat is a picture book that ends with justifiable murder." Catherine concludes, "Right and wrong doesn't come into it; it should be about what young readers enjoy and are able for. They self-censor just as adults do, so if they're reading something too complex or scary, they'll put the book down."
Darragh McManus' young adult novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, is out on November 6 (www.darraghmcmanus.com)
Five disturbing books that children should read
1. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954) Classic tale of schoolboys turning feral on an isolated island.
2. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne (2006) Son of a Nazi commandant strikes up an unlikely friendship with a boy in a concentration camp.
3. The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins (2008-2010) Teenagers fight to the death on live TV in a dystopian America, now called Panem.
4. Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner (2013) A young boy takes a stand against the Stalinist Motherland in reimagined 1950s Britain.
5. Chaos Walking, Patrick Ness (2008-2010) Thoughts are audible and war is on the way in this award-winning trilogy.