Book 45 – Junk

Book – Junk
Author – Melvin Burgess
Year – 1996
Genre – ‘Children’s’ (if you have children who mainly like books about heroin and prostitution)
Pages – 389
Given to me by Alinda Haynes-Hunte

A thought that I have often had is that the approach to educating children about drugs is wrong. Whenever we had talks about drugs at school, they were always so negative. Drugs kill you, and make you paranoid, and sick, and mad and so on and so forth. Now, I am someone who has never been tempted to even try drugs – I am too scared apart from anything else you will be pleased to hear, although maybe not as pleased as my mother – but even I when I was at school had the small thought of ‘Well, if they are that terrible, then why do so many people take them?’ Without pointing out the fact that drugs make people happy, and then contrasting that with the devastating effect that they can have upon people, there will always remain this element of doubt which encourages people to try dangerous drugs. Whilst this is a controversial idea I imagine, Junk is the perfect example of how this approach can work to make the idea of drugs less attractive.

It doesn’t take too long until this book starts to become very uncomfortable.  Tar has run away from home because he has a father that beats him.  His girlfriend, Gemma, joins him soon after because her parents ground her.  Both of them are fourteen years old, and instantly you feel a sympathy for them both – Tar because of his horrible situation, and Gemma because she doesn’t realise how good she actually has it.  The discomfort stems from the fact that you know that the book is called Junk, and so can have a pretty good idea of where it is going.

And go there it does.  Drugs – check.  Prostitution – check.  Police – check.  Theft – check.  Death – check.  If it is gritty and ‘real’ then you can bet that it is something that is going to come up in this book.  And this is where my problem sat.  Having done such a good job at establishing characters, Burgess managed to almost make me stop reading, because I knew that all of these horrible things were likely to happen.

But I persevered.  And managed to get through the entire 389 pages in one day as a result.  And I am very glad I did.  It is definitely a case of being one of those books that is ‘written for teens’ whilst being blatantly unsuitable for teens – it won the Carnegie Award the year after Northern Lights, another book that I feel is the same – but for the reasons above, I completely understand the reasoning behind it being a kids book.  Provided they can get through the beginning when the drugs all look pretty rosy, there is a message here that is not at all patronising or sanctimonious, and written in a style that is engaging enough to work, and telling teenagers that drugs ruin your life.

There is a part of me that wants to suggest that this is one of the most important books around – a concept that Carnegie promoted a few years ago, voting it as one of the most important children’s books ever – and rate it with a full 10/10.  But that is tempered with the fact that it often made me feel uncomfortable, and I often found myself not enjoying it.  I am sure that this is Burgess’ aim however, so I am instead going to give it a solid eight, but also suggest that you let your teenagers – or if you need to, make your teenagers – read this book.


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