‘The Bunker Diary’: Where do we draw the line for children’s books?

Have you ever read a book or watched a film that has already generated a massive hype amongst film critics and readers? So that before you have even turned the page you know that the political dystopian novel you’re about to embark on is supposed to be the best thing ever written since Orwell’s 1984, or a movie is supposed to be the funniest high school drama since Mean Girls?

This was kind of how I felt turning the first pages of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. I was told that the ending was sad and that the novel had generated horror amongst certain critics when it won the Carnegie medal for the UK’s top prize in Children’s Literature. Apparently some critics found that the content of The Bunker Diary was too horrific for children. With this in mind I began reading the novel with the expectation for a horrible ending. Two hours later I hurriedly turned the last page of the novel expecting to read more only to find blank pages. Turning that page was like a brutal slap to the face. Horror didn’t seem to cover it.

Author, Kevin Brooks with the Carnegie medal. Photo: The Independent

Author, Kevin Brooks with the Carnegie medal. Photo: The Independent

I must confess that having read the novel in two hours straight and late at night might have added to my shock at the ending. Having stayed with the characters in their monthly stint in the bunker that serves as their prison, without any breaks added to the reading experience. Later, after some time had passed I calmed down somewhat and took some time to assess the book as a whole.

The novel is about six random people who are kidnapped by a man and imprisoned in a bunker. Why they are kidnapped or by whom they do not know. They each have six separate rooms, a bathroom and a dining room. One by one the characters find themselves in a lift controlled by their kidnapper that leads to the bunker. What they do know is that they are being watched through cameras. As the tale ensues, things get worse in the bunker, with incidents of torture, starvation, murder and rape.

The story is told by Linus, a seventeen year-old teenager who has a remarkable background story of abuse and time spent living on the streets that makes you wonder why this young boy deserves to end up in his situation. Yet one might argue that life is exactly that – unfair and it sometimes moves us randomly into the situations we find ourselves. The Bunker Diary is exemplary of that fact, it teaches its readers about the unjust reality of life. Not everyone who is kidnapped in the world is rescued or treated fairly. Why should Brooks’ characters fair any differently just because it is a fictional story?

Aside from the devastating ending, The Bunker Diary, is a beautifully written and well-crafted novel that I would recommend to anyone. Brooks knows that sometimes less is more, and often it is the information he withholds from his readers that adds to the magic of the novel. The reader is only told of the beautiful harrowing poems and passages in Russel’s diary and of the letter that Russel addresses to Linus. In addition, Brooks withholds information about the novels’ kidnapper which only adds to his allure and scare-factory as their mysterious assailant. Much of Linus’ diary is taken up with Linus considering the difficult fact that his attacker has provided him with his diary and could be reading what he has written. In one poetic passage he writes: 

 “You see, you are the unknown. You are you, and sometimes you’re me, but you’re also Him. The Man Upstairs. Or at least you could be Him. I’m not saying you are, but I have to bear that possibility in mind.” (105)

Despite the limited setting I was always fully engaged as a reader and kept on tenterhooks throughout the narrative as to what would happen next. Criticism that Brooks’ novel won on, “shock value rather than merit”, is unfounded for in my opinion. Notwithstanding the ending, the characters are realistic and easy to empathise with. I would argue that the full force of the brutal nature of the story does not hit the reader until the very end.

It is the fact that the ending leaves you with so many questions as a reader that bothered me the most. I have read many novels which end with unanswered questions. In this case I felt like these questions needed to be answered. I also couldn’t stop thinking about all of the children and adults around the world who have been kidnapped around the world as I was reading.

The Bunker Diary is about real world issues, such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, or the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who are still missing. However, these are issues that young people have access to hearing about on the news. Perhaps the subject matter is not as X-rated as some might expect.

In defence of the novel, a children’s librarian told The Guardian, “our year nine girls loved it and did not then come to me to complain about content or the unsuitability of it. They were more concerned about letting me know how much it had moved them and how powerfully frustrated and moved they were by the ending.”

I agree with librarian Beth Khalil that sometimes children can surprise us with their reactions. I can even understand why parents might be more horrified reading The Bunker as they follow the story of nine-year old Jenny who is taken from her parents. Indeed, Jenny is a perfect example of this in the novel. Unlike some of the adults, Jenny and Linus are the few characters who manage panic less in the bunker and think rationally about potential escape plans.

I do agree, however that the inclusion of scenes of torture and rape call for at least a young adult specification warning for some adult content. On the other hand does the The Bunker Diary, deserve to be labelled, “vile or dangerous”? – I think not. I believe it is far from vile and highly deserving of its literary award.

Have you read any children’s literature that made you question the author’s chosen target audience?

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