Reflections on the Carnegie winner

Warning – Spoilers on both ‘The Bunker Diary’ and the movie ‘Unforgiven’

There’s a scene in Clint Eastwood’s classic Western movie Unforgiven in which Eastwood has got the bad guy of the movie, played by Gene Hackman, at the end of the barrel of his gun. Not thrilled at his imminent fate, Hackman says, disbelievingly, ‘I don’t deserve this’. To which Eastwood replies in his customary squinty-eyed scowl: ‘Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,’ before unloading both barrels.

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As we approach the end of term, and with it a chance to get our teeth in to some books over the summer (and thanks for sharing your summer reads on the magnetic board – we’ve got everything from John Green to Manga Graphic novels through to Dickens), you might be asking what this has got to do with reading, and the Carnegie medal in particular.

You may be aware that this year’s winner, Kevin Brooks’ Bunker Diary, has been something of a controversial choice. Definitely not suitable for younger readers (more on that in a bit), it is undeniably a bleak, abrasive and uncompromising read. I alluded to it previously in this post, and would like to reiterate that it really is a harrowing, shattering read. Those who are looking for a book to put a smile on their face are advised to look elsewhere.

The storm surrounding it has been quite unlike anything I’ve seen in my five or so years of shadowing the Carnegie. Pieces such as this one by Lorna Bradbury have gone so far as to suggest it is, quite frankly, unacceptable that a nasty little book such as this has won a prize that is supposed to award the finest book of the year written for children and young people.

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It won’t surprise you to hear that its adults who have been saying such things. My group – those who wanted to read it after I’d warned them about its dark content, that is – all loved it, as did this reading group. So you see, teenagers can be trusted to read and deal with dark books. As Brooks himself said, they know that bad things happen to good people sometimes, whether they deserve it or not (so now you get the Clint Eastwood reference), and that life isn’t all about happy endings. I can tell you for a fact that The Bunker Diary does not end happily at all…

It’s a brave choice by the judges, and a brave book for Brooks to have written. As I said, it’s not suitable for younger readers, but why should every Carnegie winner have to be? If they only award those books that are considered ‘safe’ then we risk switching off older teen readers who find darker and edgier content appealing. As for the argument that it doesn’t have any real literary merit? Well, frankly, it has a lot more literary merit – cracking plot, fully rounded and flawed characters, stripped-down and punchy prose – than some of the other stuff shortlisted for the Carnegie this year.

‘Deserve’s got nothing to do with it’? Lorna Bradbury argues that teenagers don’t deserve such gratuitous rubbish to be shoved down their throats. I would contend that teenagers – and yes, that could well mean you – deserve not to have their intelligence insulted, and to make their own minds up about a thought provoking book that offers no easy answers. Because life isn’t about easy answers, after all.

Have a great summer, whatever you do decide to read!