Fiction for 8-12s

Article excerpt

Amanda Craig finds anxiety and grief in abundance for young readers

Literature, said Dr Johnson, exists better to help us enjoy life or better to endure it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in fiction for children aged 8 to 12.

On one side we have enough heart-felt wretchedness to gratify a Booker panel - orphaned children, unloving parents, faulty heart-valves, cerebral palsy and heroin addiction; on the other, an insistence on celebrating love and courage which would appal them.

Both Philip Pullman's Clockwork (Corgi Yearling, [pounds]3.99) and Melvyn Burgess' Junk (Penguin, [pounds]4.99) were shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Junk, a graphic description of two teenagers' descent into the hell of heroin addiction, won - to the horror of many. The narrative voices are certainly powerful and there are loads of quasi-aphorisms which will appeal to the pre-pubescent, such as "I'm flying, but a lot of people end up dead inside . . . they get murdered by life." It's a grim tale, ending when Gemma goes home after getting pregnant by the unknown number of men she sleeps with to feed her habit. Perhaps it may satisfy the curiosity of those who would otherwise be silly enough to try hard drugs, but as fiction it is pretty unsatisfactory.

You wonder whether without Trainspotting it would have had quite such acclaim.

Clockwork, on the other hand, is a gem. Both a thrilling Gothic tale about a little prince whose clockwork heart is running down and witty meditation on the art of story-telling. Some stories are like clockwork, the narrator tells us. "Once you've wound them up; nothing will stop them; they move forwards till they reach their destined end." Yet within the story this is contradicted, in that the greatest clockmaker of all, the devilish Dr Kalmenius, makes clockwork figures that won't work without a soul. All Pullman's best work, including The Firework-Maker's Daughter (Corgi Yearling, [pounds]3.99), recommended for readers aged 6 or more, has at its heart a deep wisdom about what makes a master of the arts. Perhaps the Carnegie judges didn't want to give their prize to the same man two years running, but it looks ominously as if the world of children's fiction, hitherto the last refuge for those who understand that storytelling is the life-blood of fiction, is succumbing to the dead hand of the critic.

J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury, [pounds]4.99) is a sort of Worst Witch for boys, told with a zest and brio that recalls Roald Dahl. The orphaned Harry is brought up by his foul relations, who encourage his spoilt cousin to torment him. Then Harry discovers he is a wizard, famous from birth for having withstood the evil Voldemort. …