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About this book

Melvin Burgess has made a powerful name for himself in the world of children's and young adult literature, emerging in the 1990s as the author of over twenty critically acclaimed novels.

This collection of original essays by a team of established and new scholars introduces readers to the key debates surrounding Burgess's most challenging work, including controversial young adult novels Junk and Doing It. Covering a variety of critical and theoretical perspectives, the volume also presents exciting new readings of some of his less familiar fiction for children, and features an interview with the author.

Table of Contents



Variations on the word ‘controversial’ are most often used by critics and commentators to describe Melvin Burgess’s fiction.‘[U]ncompromising’, claims The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature;1 ‘edgy, honest, provocative’ is how The Continuum Encyclopedia of Young Adult Literature puts it.2 Burgess himself is widely known as the ‘godfather’ of young adult fiction and ‘a reluctant, if consistent, controversialist’.3 This high-profile reputation stems from the publication of what was in fact his eighth novel for young people, Junk (1996), a multiple first-person narrative which details the adventures of two teenagers encountering street life and drugs culture in 1980s Bristol. The popular British newspaper The Daily Mail reported on Junk’s success in winning the 1996 Carnegie Medal in sensationalist style: ‘Heroin addiction, brutality and prostitution […] Teachers outraged by librarians’ choice.’4 However, Burgess himself claims that much of the controversy surrounding the novel was a ‘paper tiger’.5 Indeed, the scandalized tone of The Daily Mail was relatively isolated, and many more educationalists, librarians and reviewers have preferred to take a liberal stance towards Junk and Burgess’s other contentious titles. The Times’ response to his Carnegie success (‘It’s not books that corrupt’6) was perhaps more representative of the attitudes of such adult gatekeepers towards what young people might be exposed to and digest.
Alison Waller

Controversy and the Cultural Context


1. ‘One of the Boys’? Writing Sex for Teenagers in Doing It

The emergence of young adult literature has a rather uncertain history in the activities of publishers, libraries and education through the later decades of the twentieth century. Jack Zipes has argued, of both young adult and children’s literature, that such literature is largely an adult matter, negotiated between adult interests in institutions entirely of their making. His essay, provocatively entitled ‘Why Children’s Literature Does Not Exist’,1 follows an argument made by Jacqueline Rose in 1984—on ‘The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction’—and shares some ground with, for example, Roberta Seelinger Trites and Alison Waller, both of whom have pursued a more particular focus on the ‘institutional’ formation of a young adult literature.2 The paradox Zipes highlights is that, on the whole, such literatures are not produced by children or by teenagers, nor are they even necessarily read by them—at least not without extensive adult mediation. So the implication that the texts so designated belong to the young is, for Zipes, thoroughly misleading:
Chris Richards

2. ‘Keeping it Real’: The Debate for Boyhood and its Representations in Doing It and Kill All Enemies

Discussing his reasons for writing the novel Doing It (2003),2 Melvin Burgess highlights a number of complex issues surrounding the question of what it means to be a boy at the beginning of the new millennium. He makes an important distinction between the actual lives of men and boys and discursive representations of boyhood which have dominated popular culture for the past two decades. Specifically, he suggests that in contemporary fiction male characters are represented through a very limited range of stereotypes while acknowledging that men as a social group may still get ‘a good deal’ in Western societies.
Michele Gill

3. The Girl and the Streets: Postfeminist Identities in Junk, Doing It and Sara’s Face

In Learning Curves: Body Image and Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature, Beth Younger contemplates the status of young adult fiction in contemporary literary culture and society. As a genre ‘uniquely subject to social supervision and frequent challenges’, Younger contends that YA fiction is ‘an important source of cultural information for young readers in that it portrays adolescents negotiating the social and sexual standards of the dominant culture’.1 Produced by adults yet consumed by young readers, the genre occupies a sensitive and often contentious space, and for this reason the cultural information presented by adult authors to their potentially impressionable audience has long been the target of intense critical attention. Yet Younger’s study is perhaps representative of a pattern in recent years in which girlhood studies has emerged more expansively as a pronounced site of critical interrogation. Since the mid-1990s, popular culture and academic scholarship has witnessed ‘an incredible proliferation of images, texts and discourses around girls and girlhood’,2 exploring not only the relationship between culture and gendered identities, but also the role of social institutions in the formation of femininities.
Joel Gwynne

Form, Style and Genre


4. Beyond Face Value: Playing the Game with Sara’s Face

Melvin Burgess is perhaps best known for incorporating challenging subject matter into his work for young readers and in this regard Sara’s Face (2006) is no exception.1 At face value, the book deals with some bold and arguably contentious material which seems likely to chafe at the boundaries of what some adult gatekeepers view as appropriate fare for young readers. After all, the novel introduces body hatred, cosmetic surgery, addiction, self-harm, teenage sex, mental instability and narcissism, not to mention the horror of the image of a jailed man, his face sliced away until it looks ‘like a bag of butcher’s meat’ (30). It is not hard to imagine why, given his propensity to use such provocative material, Burgess has earned himself such a reputation as the ‘enfant terrible’2 of the children’s book world. Nor, in the light of this reputation, is it difficult to imagine why so much critical endeavour has been targeted on illuminating the social and ethical dimensions of his work.
Kay Sambell

5. Dystopian Worlds and Ethical Subjectivities in Bloodtide and Bloodsong

The novels of Melvin Burgess can be readily subsumed under a version of postmodern relativism, but two of his most challenging works, Bloodtide (1999) and Bloodsong (2005), in practice embody a deep concern with the questions of the nature of humanity and of ethical subjectivity in a universe that is depicted simultaneously as utterly relativist and entirely determined. An imagined world in which humans and animals are readily genetically modified and mingled poses ethical problems from both scientific and humanistic angles, as the epigraphs to this chapter suggest. Although Sigurd has been genetically augmented and designed for a purpose, he is not merely a tool but a human subject capable of emotions and feelings. His first encounter with Bryony (epigraph 1) affirms that humanity is precious beyond anything that can be ‘made up’, that is, invented by genetic engineering or narrative fiction. As each of the two novels in Burgess’s Volson-saga plays out its disastrous conclusion, the central paradox is expressed in clear narrative Robyn McCallum and John Stephens 99 900 Dystopian Worlds and Ethical Subjectivities form. What space exists in human lives for free will and agency in a world apparently shaped by capricious divinities? Can there be an ethically based behaviour if every act is predetermined by all-powerful beings which humans may not even believe in? Is free will possible? Can it be said that human beings have any real ethical choice and can be held accountable for what they do, even if ‘the gods’ turn out to be no more than a metaphor for human fears and desires?
Robyn Mccallum, John Stephens

6. Transformation, Text and Genre in The Birdman

Best known for challenging assumptions about what subject matter is suitable in novels for young adults, Melvin Burgess has created other kinds of texts which similarly push boundaries in books for younger readers. This chapter will focus on his picturebook, The Birdman (2000), illustrated by Ruth Brown.1 The narrative is about a boy called Jarvis, who, seeing a man selling birds, wants to buy them all and set them free. In the end Jarvis buys only one, a robin. However, enchanted by the robin’s song he keeps the bird rather than releasing it as he promised. A year later, when the robin is nearly dead, the bird seller returns. He transforms Jarvis into a robin and the bird into a doppelgänger of Jarvis. The next morning, the new Jarvis releases the robin, who, desperate to be transformed back into human form, seeks out the birdman, only to be refused release from his new shape. Whilst this narrative may sound very straightforward from a brief summary (the back cover of the book simply proclaims the story to be about ‘the power of temptation over conscience’), the interplay of text and image, plus the ambiguity within the written text, make it much more complex and undermine such a straightforward reading.
Mel Gibson

Human and Animal Identities


7. Borderland: The Animal World of Melvin Burgess

Melvin Burgess’s Lady: My Life as a Bitch (2001), though scarcely a realistic work of fiction, is regularly included amongst those novels for which Burgess is best known and (depending on one’s point of view) most admired or deplored, namely socially realistic depictions of the sexual and cultural practices of contemporary teenagers. It is placed alongside Junk (1996), Doing It (2003) and Nicholas Dane (2010), for example, as a hard-edged depiction of a teenage world which has undergone convulsive change in recent decades. Adults often find such works disturbing. As Claire Squires observes, ‘[t]he debate around [Doing It] and around his other works, including Junk and [Lady] foregrounds how altering conceptions of the “child” (or the teenager in this case) can cause both controversy and anxiety among consumers and reviewers within the children’s publishing industry’.1
Peter Hollindale

8. ‘You Know What I Mean’: The Development of Relationships between Socially Isolated Characters in An Angel for May, Loving April and The Ghost behind the Wall

The critical debate about Melvin Burgess’s fiction has inevitably been dominated by attention given to those novels which deal explicitly with drugs, sex and violence. As a result, other texts which also exhibit his characteristic immediacy of impact and narrative complexity, and which confront equally important but less ‘sensational’ issues, have sometimes been neglected. Junk (1996), Lady: My Life as a Bitch (2001) and Doing It (2003) are well known, even to the extent of notoriety, and have attracted much attention, both popular and academic, but relatively little has been written about some of his other books. The three shorter novels highlighted in the discussion which follows, An Angel for May (1992)Loving April (1995) and The Ghost behind the Wall (2000),1 rarely feature in critical discussion, because they omit the more explicit portrayal of sex and violence for which Burgess is probably best known. Nevertheless, they exhibit the qualities for which he is justly esteemed: immediate impact; a tendency to force the reader to identify with the painful feelings of characters in traumatic situations; and a transgression of the boundaries as to what is acceptable in fiction for the young, including language that until fairly recently would have been regarded as too explicit for them. It has been generally more relevant to scrutinize the chosen texts in the light of studies involving the portrayal of elderly or disabled characters than to look at them in the context of other criticism of Burgess’s work.
Pat Pinsent

9. Challenging the Paradigm: Examining The Baby and Fly Pie and The Earth Giant through Ecocriticism

In Melvin Burgess’s 1993 novel The Baby and Fly Pie, the text is focalized through the first-person narrative of the central character Davey (nicknamed Fly). Fly is a ‘rubbish Kid’ (14) living and working alongside his sister Jane on a municipal dump in a dystopian urban setting (London). These children work for a group of women, ironically termed ‘Mothers’, who tightly control the children, forcing them to live in squalor and selling on for profit the items they scavenge. In their turn the Mothers are controlled by gang-masters who ‘police’ the streets and businesses and work with ‘Death Squads’ (6) to ‘cleanse’ the city of homeless kids and other ‘undesirables’. The narrative follows Fly, Jane and their friend Sham as they flee through the city after finding a kidnapped baby hidden within the dump with a ransom of £17 million attached to it. As the narrative progresses, Fly becomes a novel with competing but interlinked environments at its heart: the dump, the wider city, the squatter camp, the countryside, all of which fundamentally affect both action and character. As such, a reading of this text through the lens of the critical discourse of ecocriticism can produce an enhanced appreciation of the novel and raises important questions concerning nature and culture, the animal and the human, the urban and the rural. In order to examine these questions, I will place Fly alongside Burgess’s later novel, The Earth Giant (1995), which similarly interrogates the human experience of the built and the natural environments, but which also foregrounds an ecocentricity which privileges neither human nor non-human.
Karen Williams

Telling Stories


10. Found Fiction: An Interview with Melvin Burgess

Without Abstract
Alison Waller, Melvin Burgess
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