What They Said
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Junk won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's fiction award in 1997. There were howls of protest from the right wing press - especailly the Daily Mail. It was on radio and TV, there were articles and cartoons and much breast beating about the loss of innocence in young people today and where on earth is children's fiction going. But there was also a great deal of positive reaction. Today, Junk is still widely read, and the approach it takes in being open, honest and upfront about drugs and drug culture is seen as being enpowering thing, encouraging people to think for themselves, rather than encouraging them to take drugs, as its critics still sometimes try to make out.
It has always been my most popular book.
Junk was a real experiment for me. What is usually called teenage fiction is really for people aged up to fourteen or so. Even then, people are supposed to buy few books. But what about those from fourteen up? That's the age group we really think of as teenagers. Of course at that age, people read adult books, but there are almost no books aimed directly at, or about, people in the middle and later years of High School and up. There are books for grandparents, babies, toddlers and grown-ups - why has this group been left alone? It's all the more odd when you think about how big the youth market is in film, music, computer games and so on.
It was an experiment that paid off. Junk was a bestseller, here and in many other countries. Translated into 28 different languages, adapted for TV and the stage, it has been my most successful book so far.
Despite all the controversy, I have personally received only good reports about the book. I've had any number of letters sent to me from readers, and there has not been one bad one. So why all the fuss in the first place? Could it be that the whole thing was just a media circus? I've come to the conclusion that in actual fact, the numbers of people who seriously think that young people 14 and up can't handle this sort of material are actual an odd minority holding an extreme opinion hardly shared by the rest of society. The press know a good story when they see one, but why do they have to present everything new as a controversial? In fact, in a world where drugs, drug culture and drug information is widely and available, Junk was simply very long overdue. Looking back, I'm amazed to realize that it was just about the first book to deal with the subject of drug culture for people at High School in a straightforward way.
There are so few books published that are truly for young adults. If you are aged sixteen or seventeen and you want to read fiction that talks about your life - your recreation, your sex life, your feelings and emotions - you're either stuck with stuff about twenty-somethings, or you're reading soft stuff that seems to be written for younger readers, or you're reading some polite, carefully edited stuff that doesn't dare talk about reality. Maybe that was why JUNK made such an impact.
About the book
Junk is set in Bristol, where I lived myself for eight years in the late seventies and eighties. The book falls into two halves - the first part, where the main characters, Tar and Gemma, leave home and move to Bristol, where they meet up with some squatters, and the second part, where Tar and Gemma become become addicted to heroin. The second part of the book is based loosely on people I knew at the time. I think that one of the main reasons for the book's success is the fact that is painted very much from life. The culture of inner city Bristol, the lifestyles of many of the characters, was something I lived myself. Tar and Gemma, Lily and Rob, come across as real people because they are based on real people, and their story rings true because it is true. All the events in the second half of the book are real. They didn't always happen to those particular characters in that particular way, but they did happen. I had nothing to invent.
Readers Comments ... and some replies ...
Dear Melvin Burgess,
And that's that!
I'm writting you from Lithuania. I just want to say 'hi'. So, hi! And I also want to say that Junk is really shocking, exciting, but a wonderful book. Of course, it is difficult to read, but worth it. On the other hand, why I write this, perhaps, the most you know. By the way, Loving April was the same good book. Very emotional, close, real. Unfortunately, the blood is unable to read. It is a terribly difficult book. In addition, it's cold. Of course my opinion and you is not as important, but in the future I would like you to read these books, about which I wrote at the top. Thank you for your attention. I am pleased that I can write such a great writer like you.
P.S. Sometimes I think that your books are suited to 'Queen' music, don't you?
P. P. S. Sorry if I did spelling mistakes. My English is poor.
All the best,
Hello, I'm a french girl of 23 and I read "junk" when i was eighteen. I've been read it again and again and I can tell you this book changed my life because after "junk" I came to a the faculty and I studied 'psychology' and now I'm working in a little center in Paris helping some people who are drug addict and that's an incredible experience. I've find my way because of this book and i'm very grateful.
I'd like to thank you for the Buzzcocks too. I didn't knew that band before "junk" and now it's my way of life! That is the most exciting and amazing band I've ever seen and heard and since I've been reading this book I can't spend a day without Buzzcocks music. (the Only Ones was a great discovery too). I was just wondering about "Lurky" and "Lurkying about": what is this? I made so research and it's impossible for me to find what's that. If you can help me, and I'm sure you can, e-mail me.
I'm sorry for my english, it's probably a desaster.. Thank you for your wonderful work, i'm so grateful, you wrote the book which changed my life.. Bye.
What they said about JUNK.
WOULD YOU WANT THIS BOOK IN THE HOUSE FOR YOUR KIDS?
A book garlanded by an out-of-touch literary Mafia obsessed with low life, or a triumph for youth fiction that fills the void between the theory of drug culture and its awful reality? Sheena Hastings reads JUNK. - The Yorkshire Post 18th July 1997.
JUDGES TAKE A CHANCE ON ANTI-HEROES AND HEROIN
The Carnegie Medal judges have left the comfort zone behind this year in awarding one of the most prestigious prizes in children's literature to the book that gave the panel the most sleepless nights. - Times Educational Supplement, 18th July 1997.
Teachers outraged by librarians' choice
HEROIN ADDICTION, BRUTALITY AND PROSTITUTION: IT'S THE NEW CHILDREN'S BOOK PRIZE WINNER - Daily Mail, July 17th 1997.
CHILDREN'S AUTHOR RAILS AT YOUTH LITERATURE "CENSORS"
A leading children's author criticised the censorship of children's literature yesterday when he received a prize for a novel which deals with heroin addiction. - Guardian 17th July 1997
DEFINITELY NOT A LOAD OF JUNK
Children's author Melvin Burgess recently won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for his novel Junk. The decision was greeted with carefully orchestrated outrage because it is a book for adolescents which honestly and realistically depicts the lives of young drug users. - Socialist Worker, 2nd August 1997.
HEROIN NOVEL WINS CHILDREN'S BOOK PRIZE
Children's fiction took a controversial leap into adult realism yesterday when a novel about two teenagers' descent into a life of prostitution nad heroin addiction won the country's leading children's book prize. - Independent, 17th July 1997
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