Monday 12 September 2011

Review: Kill All Enemies by Melvin Burgess

Everyone says fourteen-year-old BILLIE is nothing but trouble. A fighter. A danger to her family and friends.
But her care worker sees someone different.

Her classmate ROB is big, strong; he can take care of himself and his brother. But his violent stepdad sees someone to humiliate.

And CHRIS is struggling at school; he just doesn't want to be there. But his dad sees a useless no-hoper.

Billie, Rob and Chris each have a story to tell. But there are two sides to every story, and the question is . . . who do you believe?

Melvin Burgess, an author of some of the most controversial books that have been published for young adults in recent years, is back with another brilliant story, Kill All Enemies. At any other time the content of this book would probably not seem as controversial as other subjects he has covered in the past, but with the huge public outcry following the despicable scenes of rioting and looting that we experienced in the UK during the summer I am sure there will be a number of people (Daily Mail readers most likely) who will condemn this as making excuses for the yobs they blame for causing the problems. As I watched the media coverage of those horrible few days I was almost as disturbed by the comments I was reading on Twitter as I was by the footage that was on the TV - normally intelligent and seemingly laid back people demanding a return for capital punishment and other extreme methods of punishment. I was also deeply saddened by the widespread criticism of our nation's young people, as if every single one of them was to blame. Kill All Enemies is a wake-up call for those people that every teenager is the same, every teen who wears a hoodie is a criminal, and every young person who does not do as well as expected at school is lazy and good-for-nothing.

Kill All Enemies is set in Leeds and tells the stories of Billie, Chris and Rob, three very different young people from different family backgrounds and schools. Through their various actions their paths begin to cross and the three of them end up being 'sent' to the local Pupil Referral Unit (or PRU). There are many PRUs around the country, some good and some not so, but they are the places that kids are sent to when their schools can no longer manage their behaviour any more, whether it be refusal to work, constant defiance of teachers' authority, intimidation of other students and so on. What Melvin Burgess does in this book is show that there are often deep-rooted reasons behind the behaviour of these young people be it family background, undiagnosed learning difficulties, or simply that they just do not fit in with their peers.

I believe that Melvin Burgess had originally set out to create a documentary about the young people who are 'sent' to the UK's PRUs for Channel 4. That programme was never made but from his hours and hours of research and the extensive conversations he had with the young people and the staff who work with them he created Kill All Enemies, a book that although as a whole is a work of fiction, its individual characters are very much based on the kids he talked with and their real life stories, and this makes the already hard-hitting story all the more poignant. I do not generally get overly emotional when reading books, but this one hit me hard. Perhaps this is because I am a teacher, and for seven years I was a Head of Year, occasionally working with young people with similar personalities to Bille, Chris and Rob?

Whether you are a 14 year old schoolboy, a forty year old investment banker or an eighty year old experiencing a well-earned retirement go out and buy this book now. For you younger readers it might make you think about being a little more tolerant of the boy or girl who disrupts your lessons or falls asleep at the back of the classroom. For you adult readers it might help you not to pre-judge a young person based upon what they wear, the language they use, or their refusal to meet your ideal of a normal teenager. Whoever you are, I challenge you not to be affected by the story and its characters, and I know many a tear will be shed by readers of Kill All Enemies. I have already waxed lyrical about it to my school's Head of Learning support, and not only is she going to read it but she also intends to use it as a text with her low ability English group.