A new novel for teenagers about a mixed-race girl who trains to become a terrorist suicide bomber has become a bestseller in mainstream bookshops since its publication a month ago.This seems more of the "let's explain the terrorist and how he or she suffered so much that killing innocents just seemed the only way" mentality. It does not seem like the sort of gritty subject that teenagers need. And the author's and publisher's responses seem to do more of this excusing terrorist behavior by blaming society.
Checkmate, by the award-winning children's writer Malorie Blackman, features a heroine who is groomed by militant members of an oppressed ethnic group in an unspecified country - but there are many clues to it being Britain - to wear a vest bomb to kill a senior politician in a suicide mission on her 16th birthday.
Far from stoking controversy after the London bombings, the book looks set to become a sensation, with experts and children saying that Checkmate fulfils teenagers' need for contemporary, gritty fiction.
Blackman, who says she abhors violence but that terrorism can breed in unequal social conditions, blamed the September 11 terrorist attack for making American publishers too timid to take the book on. Annie Eaton, Blackman's editor at her British publisher, Random House, said yesterday that it was "a complete coincidence" that the author had included suicide bombing in Checkmate. "We had the manuscript months before the London bombings."
She denied that Blackman's subject matter was too tough for teenagers: "They see far worse things on television and I think people realise that what she is doing is very important, making this age group think and be led by their own judgments.
"We have not had a negative reaction at all. The emails that Malorie has been getting from readers, and we just don't know whether they are black, white or Asian, is that they are amazingly moved. It's been particularly heart-warming that a lot of them have been from teenagers who say they don't normally read books."
John Webb, children's book buyer for Waterstone's, said yesterday that there was no question of withdrawing Checkmate from shops. "The earlier books have had a massive following and I was unaware of the contents of the final book.
"A suicide bomber is horribly untimely but teenage readers ask for challenges. They are sophisticated and this is not a book that is going to encourage them to do it. It's a book that investigates why people do these things and opens people's minds."
The 9/11 bombers were not downtrodden. The guys in London could have easily made something of themselves. One was on welfare living off the dole, but I think that two of them had jobs, wives, and small children. They weren't trying to change racism in England; they were killing for a fundamentalist Islamic way of life. They were killing people, many of whom were not members of the supposedly oppressive upper class, but just some people going to work on a Thursday morning. You don't hit the upper class in the Metro. But kids seem to be reading these books and thinking that it tells them something about those who are killing innocents throughout the world.
Katie Twyford, 15, of Braintree, Essex, said: "Why wrap teenagers in cotton wool? It is very important to open people's eyes up to racism and terrorism. Soon enough we are going to have to go out in the real world and we watch the news anyway."So, the author creates a fictional world that is quite racist. As a little touch, the blacks are the upper class and the whites are the mistreated lower class. See, that can open up our eyes in case you're too insensitive to understand racism if the victim is black. And then she creates a world so terrible that the heroine decides to become a suicide bomber. Actually, I think it conforms more to some stereotypes about terrorists as poor victims who find that murder is the only way to change society. The publisher says it's just a coincidence that this book came out after the London bombings. Well, there have been terrorist bombings for decades. Some in England, too. So, even without the 7/7 bombings as a backdrop, the publisher could do some good hard thinking about whether this is a good topic for teenagers.
Amelia Farmer, 11, of Cambridge, said watching coverage of the London suicide bombers after reading Checkmate "made me wonder whether they were nice people when they were children and whether they might have been bullied at school like Callum is in the book or whether life might have been unfair to them".
Henry Page, 13, of Winchester, said: "Checkmate is a fantastic book. It showed how difficult it must be to be a different colour from other people. It opened my eyes and it was quite sad."
As a teacher, I'm so sick of the idea that the only good subjects to appeal to teenage readers are books about suicide, divorce, sex, death, and other topics that supposedly evoke the real-world problems that teenagers face. Including, I guess suicide bombing. According to these books, teenagerdom is one terrible Hobbesian state of nature where all the pretty girls are nasty and cruel; the good-looking boys just want to use everyone; and the parents are either dumb, alcoholic, or absent. Maybe, I'm just a middle-aged Pollyanna, but that isn't the world I see. I see kids who are concerned about doing well AND being good people. They are interested in their communities and their futures. Those who have had tough breaks such as parents dying or going through bitter divorces are terribly saddened, but also quite determined that they aren't going to be brought down by their own bad luck. I find the kids I interact with every day an inspiration and a great source of optimism. Sure, there are some mean kids and some unhappy, unpopular kids, but they are more the exception than the rule.
Readers, what are you seeing in your own experiences? Do you see teens living in the rather dark world that fiction-writers seem to think is out there or do you have more reason for optimism?