Levels of recorded drug abuse in Britain are up to five times higher among teenagers and young adults than in other European countries. The last decade has seen an eightfold increase in drug use among 15-year-olds and a fivefold increase among 12-year-olds. How is this reflected in books for young adults? Colin Chapman assesses non-fiction and fiction titles with drugs as a theme.
While books have a part to play in drugs education, drug dependency is caused by a complex array of social and psychological problems. These cannot be prevented by reading a book – although some of the titles currently available for early teens appear to have such unrealistic ambitions.
Non-Fiction books on drugs
One such is Getting into Drugs by Pete Sanders and Steve Myers which sets out with high ambitions to prevent the reader from ever developing a drugs problem. It takes the form of a briefing about drugs, using posed photographs to depict drug related situations and storylines covering the consequences of encounters with drugs. Drugs are portrayed in a negative light while the photographs reinforce the kind of stereotypes which a balanced drug education is designed to challenge, eg an older woman holding a bottle of tranquillisers and a young man with straw coloured hair handing what looks like a wrap of heroin or amphetamine to a young woman whose bodily stance suggests she has just left the cat walk. The most bizarre juxtaposition of picture and text in this book has a photograph of a family barbecue with adults and children enjoying a glass of wine while the adjacent text reads: ‘Drugs can affect all aspects of your life. They could even kill you’. This strange cocktail of photographs and text is further enriched by a cartoon strip storyline featuring wooden characters with names such as Sophie and Bruno, and cringe making voice bubbles. Frankly I cannot imagine any young person taking this book seriously.
This is not true of A Right to Smoke? by Emma Houghton which is suitable for 12-14 year-olds and starts off on the right footing by treating the reader with respect and offering different points of view on the subject of smoking. The text is balanced and factual with some interesting trivia which goes a considerable way to assist young people in assessing the impact of tobacco on society. Houghton is not afraid to cite conflicting information about the effects of long term smoking. One pensioner tells us: ‘I have been smoking for 30 years and have hardly had a day off sick, but if it’s true, so what? We have all got to die of something.’ By way of contrast we are told that not even tobacco chiefs are immune from the effects of their product – in 1994 R J Reynolds, grandson of the US tobacco company founder, was the fifth Reynolds to die of smoking related diseases.
This book is illustrated with the posed photographs which seem to be common in books of this kind but there are also other relevant images. In the section on popular culture and smoking there is a still from the movie Pulp Fiction of the actress Uma Thurman smoking in a café. There is also a picture of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca alongside the fact that he died aged 57 of lung cancer. There is good use of quotes from smokers, experts, playwrights and journalists giving both sides of the arguments. One commentator rubbishes passive smoking claiming it is merely a propaganda device to make smoking a public evil as opposed to a merely private vice. This well researched book covers all the issues in an accurate, non patronising way, and assumes the reader is able to make up their own mind about this worldwide activity. I thought it excellent and recommend it for school and library use and for classroom work.
Careless use of drugs
A companion book by Emma Houghton, Drug Abuse?, is in a similar style with a mixture of rich quotations, balanced text and relevant illustrations. I particularly liked the section which assesses the value of drug education and anti-drugs campaigns. Posters from the early 1990s are included which have the slogan ‘Drugs, you never know what they will do to you’ and show shocking images of users in an attempt to dissuade people from experimenting with illegal substances. These are juxtaposed with the evidence of ever increasing numbers of people using illegal substances. Houghton quotes a colleague of mine, Julian Cohen, as saying: ‘Such simplistic messages and slogans are fundamentally flawed… when young people eventually find out they have been lied to they will cease to trust adults’ resources of drugs information.’ Houghton accurately follows the trends in drug education and points to the increasing use of an approach that includes reducing harm caused by the careless use of drugs and the view that it is better to give young people more information about drugs and their dangers so that they can make up their own minds. This is very much the theme of her book and it can be confidently recommended.
A scientific tone is set in a book Microbes, Bugs and Wonder Drugs: Potions to penicillin, to aspirin to addiction in the ‘Making Sense of Science’ series by Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph. Balkwill sets out to give an uncomplicated biology of drugs. The strength of her text lies in the straightforward explanations given about how the drugs work on the body. Strip cartoons are used extensively to describe, for example, the history of penicillin – it is a pity that these storylines are spoilt by flat one-dimensional drawings. These pictures contrast with sometimes bizarre, extremely colourful but often overdone illustrations of biological formations such as cells, viruses and organs. The illustrator in several cases has got completely carried away using a huge amount of colour, festooning images all over the pages in sometimes such a dazzling way that it completely obliterates the usually excellent text and may well put off the teenage reader. This is a pity as there is much fascinating information here about disease, the body’s response to it and the drugs used to combat it.
Drugs: From Ecstasy to Agony…? by Anita Ganeri in the ‘Reference Point’ series is a bright and accessible read and acts as a drug briefing for 13-15 year olds. It is well written and will keep the young reader’s attention with ‘bites’ of factual information interspersed with quotes from people involved either as drug users or as professionals responding to drug problems. Ganeri’s potted biographies of drug users reveal startling insights into drug related experiences (one story in particular should be read by budding bodybuilders). I particularly liked the section on specific substances, which is broken up with teenagers’ lucid and matter of fact encounters with drugs. One 16-year-old describes his experiences with cannabis and gives advice about safer use: ‘You have got to get out of the way if you are smoking cannabis, or you will be caught, whereas with drink you can just go down the pub. We would save it for the weekend, as if you would do it after school you would wake up next morning with sticky eyes and you could not concentrate as well. You don’t think straight.’
There are a few inaccuracies, e.g. in a section on terminology a distinction is made between hard and soft drugs. There is potentially no difference. Using any substance runs the risk of ending up as a damaging drug experience – carelessly smoking one cannabis joint in school or at work, for example, could mean exclusion or the sack. Drugs should not be judged solely in the context of the particular degrees of intoxication nor solely on the grounds of health. There are so many other factors to take into account. But this is a minor complaint.
Ganeri also tells us that peer pressure is blamed by users for their involvement in drugs. However, research suggests that this factor is over rated as an influence and that young people tend to identify with the group which most matches their own interests. Some young people may well be pressurised into taking drugs, but for many whom they mix with and what they do is their own choice. The only other concern I have in this otherwise balanced and well organised book is with a section simply entitled ‘Help’. It includes a long list of signs and symptoms, many of which could be confused with normal adolescent behaviour – eg wearing sun glasses at odd times; always being broke and trying to borrow money; using slang associated with drugs; taking no care of your personal appearance! While the author warns us not to jump to conclusions, it would have been better to say that if you are at all concerned about someone, you would be best advised to look for subtle changes over a period of time and make gentle enquiries about your concerns. If the person does have a drug problem, they will only tell you when they are ready to.
Pulled as well as pushed
Dr Miriam Stoppard comments correctly in her Drugs Info File that drugs are pulled as well as pushed. I found this a welcome relief – so many books for and about young people and drugs fall into the trap of assuming that peer pressure is the predominant cause of young people’s involvement. Stoppard rightly states that most people view occasional drug use in the same way as they view the use of alcohol, ie as part of normal life. However, we do have to be careful about stating this unequivocally – some young people are very worried about substance use, especially those who live in communities where drugs are ever present and violence associated with drugs distribution is not uncommon. In a section on why parents worry about drugs there is some helpful advice about alleviating parental concerns. At times, however, Stoppard sounds a bit frantic. She has a section entitled ‘Show Your Parents This’, but I doubt whether many parents would be pleased to read ‘Don’t be authoritarian, you’ll lose your child.’ I’m not sure either whether parents would feel any easier if their drug using children tells them, as Stoppard advises, that they will promise to find out the truth about drugs and will only take drugs when they are with good friends. From this point onwards Drugs Info File tends to be too much in your face. It ends with a chapter on ‘Do you have a problem with drugs?’ I think the problem with addressing young people directly on a sensitive issue such as drugs can be counter productive and may be interpreted by the reader as assuming that they are using drugs. Better, I think, to write in the third person.
A section on handling drugs with common sense has much practical advice on safer clubbing, but what is missing here is information about the after effects of ecstasy which can leave the user withdrawn, anxious and depressed with a gradual deterioration in body weight. While these conditions in users may be temporary, it can be a very alarming experience for partners, parents and friends.
There is much useful information here, but the over elaborate layout may put all but the most determined reader off. There is an irritating style in the section which goes through all the main drugs with different fonts used to emphasise particular words. It makes each page seem messy and is rather patronising.
Teen Fiction with drug using as a theme
There is a paucity of good fiction for teenagers with drug use as a theme.
The setting for Rosie Corrigan’s He Loved Drugs More Than Me is a middle class family where Alice is pressed into taking ecstasy by Keiran, the singer in her brother’s rock band. The story follows a predictable pattern as Alice finds the experience with the drug amazing – but the after effects (feeling gloomy and irritable) somewhat less enticing. Keiran’s motive is of course entirely sexual but Alice does not realise this until it is too late and he has abandoned her and she ends up in hospital. Whilst this is formulaic writing, the anti-drugs message is not oppressive with the situation reasonably realistic described. It will appeal to many young teenage girls. One thing that did worry me about this book is the essentially white heterosexual perspective from which it written and it does not really delve into the complexities of teenagers growing up in a multi-cultural and morally ambiguous society.
Chris Wooding’s Crashing is very much an adventure story for boys. We are told that it was written when the author was 19 years old during a summer holiday when he had nothing better to do. I feel that this is a bit of a giveaway and I am inclined to take the same view about reading this book. It contains glorious macho gems such as ‘pissed up boys will go for anything with a pulse’. This is Hollywood transposed to a suburban housing estate. Jay, our tough guy hero, explains that ‘today was a special day and I figured my body was young and fit enough to take a pack of 20 B & H without dropping me with a coronary.’
The main action takes place in his house with a party where there are apparently no boundaries, while the final shoot out with party gate crashers occurs in an adjacent derelict industrial site before the hero returns to his home to win the girl of his dreams. Crashing is written in a mid Atlantic tone and is rooted in hedonism, drink, smokes and women (all there to be ‘cracked’) but funnily enough no illegal drugs. The problem with this kind of literature is that it takes itself so seriously when the reader ends up caring little about anyone involved.
Malcom Rose’s Son of Pete Flude is no better. This implausible novel is about Sebastian, the son of a rock star who gets caught up in the world of ruthless drug dealers. The first notion we get that something is amiss is when the father comes home and reveals that he has been approached to carry ‘crack’ back from an African tour. The police are onto the gang and persuade Flude to co-operate and snare the dealers. The story then deteriorates into an unconvincing yawn of kidnapping and police incompetence. The parents are killed along the way and Sebastian is injected with a myriad of substances for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Moving and sensitive
Last but not least, Melvin Burgess’s Junk describes the slow and relentless deterioration of young people into a world dominated by heroin. Tar and Gemma escape from troubled homes to squat together in Bristol. The narrative is spoken from the perspectives of the different characters caught up in this tragic story. This is a serious, moving and sensitive novel, not written to a superficial formula about adolescent angst but written with deep feeling and emotion as though it took a lot out of the author to describe this relentless slide almost into oblivion. The seriousness of the pair’s decline is aptly encapsulated in some moving lines. Gemma observes that Tar has got so cynical when he always used to be so delighted by things: ‘He used to get so emotional about I don’t know, me, the stars at night. That was all wonderful for him. These days he doesn’t care anymore. I don’t understand him these days.’ On another occasion the pair go to an isolated Welsh cottage for the weekend. This experience is intended to be drug free but Tar finds that he cannot cope without heroin and he hitches back to Bristol to get some. The ease with which Gemma and Tar and their friends are drawn into prostitution and thieving to fund their habit shocks the reader, especially as their drug taking starts out in such a light-hearted way.
The world of employment, mortgages and the middle class lifestyles depicted in the previous novels reviewed above have no place here. Eventually, after three and a half years’ homelessness and prostitution, Gemma ends up in hospital pregnant, nearly losing her life and the baby, and desperate to go home.
Colin Chapman is a Youth ServiceManager with the London Borough of Redbridge and has a special interest in Drugs Education. His publications include Drugs Issues for Schools (Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, 1995) and, with Ian Clements, The Really Useful Drugs Guide (The Early Break Drugs Project and the London Borough of Redbridge, 1997). He is also consultant writer to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, now the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, for Drug Education Curriculum Guidance for Schools.
A future issue of BfK will discuss children’s books and drugs education for pre-teens.
Getting into Drugs, Pete Sanders and Steve Myers, Franklin Watts ‘Let’s Discuss’, 1996, 0 7496 2494 9, £10.99 hbk
A Right to Smoke?, Emma Houghton, Franklin Watts ‘Viewpoints’, 1997, 0 7496 2381 0, £10.99 hbk
Drug Abuse?, Emma Houghton, Franklin Watts ‘Viewpoints’, 1997, 0 7496 2576 7, £10.99 hbk
Microbes, Bugs and Wonder Drugs: Potions to penicillin, to aspirin to addiction, Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph, Portland Press ‘Making Sense of Science’, 1995, 1 85578 065 8, £12.99 hbk
Drugs from Ecstasy to Agony, Anita Ganeri, Scholastic ‘Reference Point’, 1996, 0 590 55281 3, £3.99 pbk
Drugs Info File, Dr Miriam Stoppard, Dorling Kindersley, 1999, 0 7513 0623 1, £5.99 pbk
He Loved Drugs More Than Me, Rosie Corrigan, Scholastic ‘Point Confessions’, 1999, 0 590 63713 4, £3.99 pbk
Crashing, Chris Wooding, Scholastic, 1998, 0 590 54347 4, £4.99 pbk
Son of Pete Flude, Malcolm Rose, Scholastic, 1994, 0 590 55721 1, £3.50 pbk
Junk, Melvin Burgess, Andersen, 1996, 0 86264 632 4, £12.99 hbk, Methuen Drama, 0 413 73840 X, £6.99 hbk, Puffin, 0 14 038019 1, £4.99 pbk
The Drugs in Schools Helpline (Release)
Tel: 0345 36 66 66 (open Mon–Fri, 10am–5pm)
A national, confidential service specifically for pupils, teachers and parents concerned about drug incidents at school.
The National Drugs Helpline
Tel: 0800 77 66 00 (open 24 hours)
A national confidential service which offers information, advice and counselling.
020 7638 3700 (open Mon–Fri, 10am–5pm
A confidential service for families and friends of drug users.
Alanon and Alateen Family Groups
61 Great Dover Street
London SE1 4YF
Tel: 020 7403 0888
Information and resources for drinkers and for the families of problem drinkers.
109 Gloucester Place
London W1H 3PH
Tel: 020 7935 3519
Information and resources about anti-smoking initiatives.
Department for Education Publications Centre
P.O. Box 6927, London E3 3NZ
Tel: 020 7510 1050
Free copies of Circular 4/95, Drug Prevention and Schools and other drugs education leaflets.
The Drug Education Forum
National Children’s Bureau
8 Wakeley Street
London EC1V 7QE
Tel: 020 7843 6038
An umbrella body which provides a drug education information service.
Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence (ISDD)
Waterbridge House, 32-36 Loman Street
London SE1 0EE
Tel: 020 7928 1211
An extensive library, publications and information on all aspects of drug use.
388 Old Street
London EC1V 9LT
Tel: 020 7729 9904
Provides a helpline and advice. Focuses on legal issues.
30A High Street
Staffordshire ST15 8AW
Tel: 01785 817885
Information about solvent abuse.
Standing Conference on Drug Abuse (SCODA)
Waterbridge House, 32-36 Loman Street
London SE1 0EE
Tel: 020 7928 9500
Information on counselling services, national directory and regional lists of drugs projects.
TACADE The Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drug Education)
1 Hulme Place, The Crescent
Greater Manchester M5 4QA
Tel: 0161 745 8925
Educational resource materials and training for schools.