So bleak – thoughts about the Carnegie winner

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

BunkerI’d been too busy lately to get involved with reading any of the Carnegie shortlisted books this year until the results were announced. The Carnegie Medal for 2014 was recently awarded to Kevin Brooks’ latest novel The Bunker Diary – and it’s been very controversial. I immediately turned to the copy I’d bought and read it in one session with a short pause to make tea. Gosh! It was good … BUT … and there is a big but – it is the most depressing book I have read in a long time.

It’s now traditional for years 7-8 in schools (11-13yrs) to shadow the Carnegie Awards and pick their own winner from the shortlist. The boys at my school picked this book as their winner, as did a wider group of Abingdon schools (see here), so it has been very popular with early teens indeed. Let’s find out a little about it.

The book starts with a boy telling us how he’s woken up to find himself in a concrete room – a small complex with six bedrooms, a bathroom and communal area. The only way in is by lift. He’s all alone. He tells us how he was kidnapped: ‘I thought he was blind, that’s how he got me.’  He went to help a blind man lift his case into a van…

Teenager Linus has been living on the streets for five months, he ran away ‘to escape the shittiness of school and the emotional madness of being at home.’  His father is a successful cartoonist and illustrator and has no time for his son. His mother is gone. Linus’ father is rich – he supposes he’s been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. That hope is dashed a couple of days later, when the lift comes down and disgorges a seven year old girl, Jenny, from Essex where her father works for a DIY chainstore.

It’s obvious that they’re being watched. Linus and Jenny try sending messages up in the lift to ask for food. It works. But the lift also brings down four more people to fill the rooms: Fred, a big burly junkie, Bill a businessman, a woman Anja who mostly keeps to her room and cries, and Russell an older man who is already dying of cancer. You’ll root for Linus and Jenny all the way through as they are forced to grow up fast in the changed dynamics of the group and take the lead on thinking of escape plans.

I have to pause there for a *** SPOILER ALERT *** I won’t discuss the plot any more in detail, but it is difficult to discuss the novel further without giving away the sense of the ending.

I mentioned earlier that there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the selection of this book as the Carnegie winner. The Carnegie awards were set up to champion children’s fiction, and the short-listed books ‘appear’ to be edging up the age range each year. The Bunker Diary is a young adult novel. Despite the 11-13 year-olds enjoying it in the shadowing exercise, I wouldn’t recommend it to that age group in general. If you look at the official shortlist page here, you’ll see that three of the eight books including The Bunker Diary are recommended for 14+, four are 11+ and just one is 9+. The Carnegie Medal is, according to the website, ‘awarded by children’s librarians for an outstanding book for children and young people,’ so it is fair to include YA books isn’t it? Or should a separate prize be developed for 14+ titles?

If you look at the list of winning books there are many titles that are full of war, violence, revenge, bullying and so on – all challenging subjects for young people to read about. Not all the prize-winners have happy endings either, e.g. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and even C.S.Lewis’s The Last Battle, however, the context that they are set in, i.e. war in both these cases makes tragedy seem an acceptable way to end a novel. The Bunker Diaries doesn’t have that excuse – the kidnapping and forced imprisonment of the six is apparently entirely at the whim of the kidnapper. There’s no explanation about it at all. It doesn’t even feel like the kidnapper is treating them as experiments – it’s purely a game until the end, like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse. Nasty, nasty, nasty.

I think it’s this feel of senseless violence and gratuitous torture that has got people riled. Read Alison Flood’s coverage of the debate in the Guardian here, and see what novelist and children’s book critic Amanda Craig says here. It’s fascinating stuff.

I must admit to feeling a bit conflicted. I didn’t like it – it’s not a book you can like, but I appreciated it and was numbed by it. I’m not a fan of unnecessary happy endings, but this one got me asking why, why, why? There are no answers, but yes, I would let my daughter read it if she wanted to, and I would be happy if they were to discuss it at school. Not every parent or librarian will feel this way though.

junkCILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals aren’t afraid of controversy though…

Can you remember back to 1996 when Melvin Burgess’ novel Junk, about teenage heroin addicts won?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bunker Diaryby Kevin Brooks, Penguin 2013, paperback 272 pages.
Junkby Melvin Burgess.



7 thoughts on “So bleak – thoughts about the Carnegie winner

  1. Enjoyed review. It’s a subject that stirs strong opinions. I know through work that The Bunker Diary is popular with teenagers in our schools in my part of London. I’ve not read it though I’ve read much about it. I’m in that middle ground place – I wouldn’t want to stop my daughter reading it but for once I’m actually glad she’s not particularly keen on reading so the issue isn’t likely to arise personally!! And as for controversy or shock value generating prizes, I’m sure it might influence the Carnegie judging but no more than any other book award in my view.

    • I don’t think my daughter would ever read it unless she had to either, Col. It is, however, a one of that rare breed of YA books that makes a great adult read too – I recommend it, but you won’t like it!

  2. I think I am still looking at books depicting school life with Linus’s attitude with slightly mixed feelings. Difficult to even think of scenario like this here. School is sacred almost for Asian families. Education is such a goal that it is an obsession for most people. The odd case which is different may exist and we have our fair share of “madness at home” but still very much an unknown quantity. Even for me reading a book like this may be tough.

  3. Tricky – in theory we should be able to write about anything but I do find myself questioning what this book would achieve, however, well it’s written. Life is not all happy endings but there’s a risk that by familiarising extreme situations we make them seem like the norm, which is not what we want to perpetuate. The debate *is* fascinating!

  4. I was once present at a conversation between British writers such as Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo and there continental equivalents as to whether or not children’s books should have a happy ending. The general consensus on the part of the UK authors was that there should at least be grounds for hope. The writers from Holland and Belgium felt that this wasn’t necessary because it wasn’t true to life. Afterwards a group of us had a very interesting discussion debating whether or not this was related to the fact that the overseas authors had all grown up in countries that knew what it was like to be occupied by invading forces. I for one am sorry at the turn the Carnegie award has taken because I think there a great many books out there for the slightly younger age range that are now getting overlooked. However, I can never regret the publicity it brought to ‘Junk’ because I think that is one of the most remarkable novels I know.

    • How fascinating! I must admit that a glimmer of hope however faint is preferable, and although I haven’t read Junk (must do after this) I believe that is the case in that book. It’s definitely a shame that the Carnegie seems to be skewing towards the teens books – is that market forces – YA is a big success – or is that me being cynical?

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