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Should we ever be able to forgive children who kill? A new book for teenagers tells the story of a 10-yearold girl who committed the ultimate crime.

Byline: Emma Johnson reports

'BE MY friend, she wanted to say, she might even have said it as she raised the baseball bat and swung it at the back of Michelle's head.' This is not a dramatic death in the latest Ruth Rendell or John Grisham, but the brutal killing at the heart of acclaimed children's novel Looking for JJ.

More shocking is that the individual bringing that baseball bat crashing down is a 10-year-old schoolgirl.

Children who kill may not be the most obvious material for a book aimed at early teens, but the novel has been nominated for the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children's literature, which will be announced next month. It was also shortlisted for last year's Whitbread Children's Book Award.

Author Anne Cassidy is more than ready to defend the controversial subject matter.

'I think these sorts of subjects should be tackled,' says Anne. 'It is just a matter of how you tackle them.

'If you take this sort of subject matter and make it sensationalist to get people reading it, that is different. I have not tackled this in a sensationalist way.'

A mother herself, with a 20-yearold son, and an ex-teacher, 52-yearold Anne, is confident of her target audience.

'These are the adults of tomorrow, they need to be able to grapple with these big moral issues,' says the London-based writer. 'Teenagers are either ridiculed or loathed when most of them are really nice kids who are hungry for stuff to read that does not speak down to them.

'In school they do Shakespeare's plays - full of murder and teenage marriage. They read Of Mice and Men where someone kills his best friend and they learn about the horrors of the Holocaust.

'If you look at something like Eastenders or The Bill, almost everything in this book is covered there' The Carnegie website has reviews of this book from children and students and most of the readers enjoyed it. Sometimes they are troubled by it or say it made them feel uncomfortable but they are all gripped by the story.'

First published last year, Looking For JJ tells the story of Jennifer Jones, who against a backdrop of her prostitute single mother's virtual abandonment, kills her 10-year-old best friend.

Anne picks up Jennifer's story six years after she is found guilty of manslaughter, following her release from custody.

As JJ, the name the media affords her, carves out a new identity for herself, the reader finds out if she can ever be forgiven by society for her terrible crime and more importantly can she ever forgive herself?

Since 11-year-old Mary Bell was found guilty of strangling two little boys in Newcastle in 1968, people have struggled to comprehend how one child can kill another.

Closer to home, in Liverpool, the horrific murder of two-yearold James Bulger at the hands of 10-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson sent shock waves through the UK.

James's murder was over 12 years ago yet it, and reports of Thompson and Venables' activities since, are still enough to send even the most rational of individuals into hysterical rants about nature versus nurture and how some people are just 'born evil'.

And only last week the names of Bell and Bulger were again in the news after five-year-old Anthony Hinchliffe was found with what police described as 'horrific injuries' and ligature marks. A 12-year-old girl has been charged with grievous bodily harm and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Anne insists her book, though inspired by them, is not based on any of the high-profile cases.

'The murder of James Bulger was one of the most horrific things many of us had ever heard,' she says.

'I was a teacher at the time and I can remember being aghast that this thing could happen, that two 10-year-old boys could do this.

'Even after the case was tried, there never seemed to be any closure. There was no definite feeling that justice had been done and people did not know who to hate.

'It had a profound effect on me. Some years later, the journalist, Gitta Sereny, interviewed Mary Bell and wrote a book called Cries Unheard.

'When I read the book, I wanted to understand why Mary Bell did this but I'm not even sure she could.

'But there is no relationship between my book and the Bulger or Bell cases other than an emotional one for me.'

For most of us the ugly scenes surrounding the Bulger case in particular, as raging mothers and fathers attacked police vans taking the boys away are on instant recall and the faces of the young killers and James himself are indelibly imprinted on our minds.

'It is the rarity of these cases that makes them stick with us,' says Anne. 'Everything about these cases becomes iconic.

'As a society, we we equate childhood with innocence. So when children do something that is horrific it is like we have been slapped in the face.

'I'm not a psychiatrist but, when an adult does something awful, we are naturally horrified but we know what adults are capable of. We know there are damaged people who will do terrible things but when children do those things we are astonished, hurt and horrified.'

Anne's book is aimed at 13year-olds and while she accepts younger children may pick it up she does not see that as reason not to tackle such a dark topic.

'It's for teenagers and I think books for teens have more in common with books for adults than children's books,' she says.

'It s an awkward age to write for. I am a crime writer so I tend to write fairly dark stuff. Over the years, I have written about the things that have stayed with me or that have worried me.

'I have written two books about missing children. I have written books about violence against women and stalkers, the things that as a woman living in London, reading the newspapers, I am concerned about.

'There will be brighter younger children who will read this book the same way there will be children over 13 who read it.

'When you are speaking to a teen audience you want to engage them and you can't always be looking over your shoulder, worried that a nine-year-old might read it.

'I don't think a nine-year-old would be interested in this type of story but if they are interested in it then maybe they are mature enough to read it.'

One thing Anne is very clear on and which shines through the novel is that Looking For JJ is not a cautionary tale.

She does not feel society has degenerated so far that we need to warn children of the consequences of murdering their classmates.

Nor is she a bleeding heart liberal expecting readers to side with a killer.

'When writing for teens you have to be careful that there is not a smidgen of a suggestion that you are preaching to them,' she explains.

'I expect teens to be gripped by it and I expect them to think about things. I don't know what kind of conclusions they will come to.

'I don't expect them to feel sorry for JJ, I'm just giving them a story to make them think.'

Looking For JJ by Anne Cassidy (Scholastic) is out now priced pounds 5.99


Anne Cassidy's book Looking for JJ; Former teacher Anne Cassidy believes children should deal with big moral issues; Robert Thompson, top, and Jon Venables who killed; toddler James Bulger in 1993
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jun 8, 2005
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