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Wednesday, 8 August, 2001, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Row over teen novel
Melvin Burgess
Burgess: Three time Carnegie short-listed
An explicit book by an award-winning writer and aimed at young teenagers has been condemned by youth campaigners.

Melvin Burgess's book - Lady, My Life as a Bitch - tells the story of 17-year-old Sandra Francy, who drinks vodka, smokes and has sex with a variety of boys before being magically turned into a dog.


This is quite the nastiest piece of children's literature that I have ever read

Eric Hester, Family and Youth Concern

The storyline - she decides it may be better to be a "bitch on heat" than a young woman - has angered some.

"This is a very unpleasant - it is about a girl who is on drugs, she's promiscuous, she steals from shops and she prefers in the end to be a 'bitch on heat' than to being a human being," Family and Youth Concern vice-president Eric Hester told the BBC.

"This is quite the nastiest piece of children's literature that I have ever read."

Burgess announced the September publication of Lady, My Life as a Bitch at the Hay-on-Wye festival in May, causing immediate outcry which has intensified as publication date approaches.

cover of Lady
The title has yet to hit the shops
He argues that teenagers are surrounded by an array of suspect material and are well able to discern between fiction and reality.

"There's no question about this book being a Sunday school tract about how to live your life or advice of any kind," he told the BBC.

"It's a satire about freedom, sexuality and personal responsibility and the hope is that it will make people think about those things."

Burgess first faced controversy with his 1997 novel Junk, about teenage heroin use which was also aimed at young teenagers.

That book went on to win the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Carnegie Prize and has been dramatised for stage and TV.

He is regarded by many as one of the best writers in contemporary children's literature, but his books deal with difficult topics such as child abuse, homelessness and disability.

He believes that dealing with such tough subjects head-on is important and that books should be judged on their contents rather than whether they teach anything.

"I don't think the book counts as social pressure," he said.

Junk book cover
Controversial Junk was published as Smack in the US
"I remember with Junk, one young reader coming out with a remark which summed it all up really which was that it's not books that corrupt, it's people."

But campaigners, who have called for a rating system for books similar to that imposed on films, see such writing as a symptom of wider ills.

"I think society in general and government has to realise that it is not looking after its children and its young people," said Hester.

"It's looking after their bodies - you can't sell young people aspirins or a cigarette, you can't give them a drink - but you can in fact give them any material like this no matter how unpleasant."

Burgess feels that a rating system would make no difference to the situation and argues that attempting to control what young people have access to is "ludicrous".

He believes that what young teenagers want is stories about real life and not "some fairytale".

"You can't ring fence children any more away from the rest of the world," he said.

Lady, My Life as a Bitch is published by Anderson's Press on 20 September

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Melvin Burgess on The Today Programme
"It will make people think"
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