Paul Magrs spent a decade searching for the right narrative voice for David, the 10-year-old who plays the central character in his first children's book, Strange Boy. In the interim, he has penned nearly a dozen acclaimed adult novels and taught on the celebrated creative writing course at the University of East Anglia.

''Suddenly it clicked into place. It frightened me that in the end it came back so easily. I spent last summer talking and thinking like I did when I was 10,'' says Magrs (pronounced like the planet).

Strange Boy could make him the Roddy Doyle of County Durham. Like Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, it captures with searing tenderness the undulations of the life of a working-class youngster. David is caught in the crossfire of his parents' messy separation. His brutish father cries on his shoulder during tense access visits and the boy takes refuge in the fantasy world of comic superheroes, persuading himself that he has magical powers.

The book also hums with the feel of the seventies and the particular trash in which people sought consolation 25 years ago: supermarket trolley dashes, sticker albums, Spangles.

But that's not what's got people talking about Strange Boy. It's the fact that David is having some inkling that he is gay, though the word never appears in the book. The boy feels increasingly alienated from the laddish culture of the new town in the north-east of

England where he lives and is

instead drawn to John, a shy, sensitive 14-year-old from down the road. It's a sad reflection on the immaturity of mainland British culture that the knee-jerk response has been to decry the contents as unsuitable for children.

In England there are suggestions that schools that buy it for their libraries risk prosecution under Clause 28, which bans the promotion of homosexuality in schools. The very mention of it raises his hackles instantly. The very idea of an author ''promoting homosexuality'' is absurd, he says, adding that fiction is too complex for that. As a writer you are simply showing how life is. ''You can have stories about girls and boys and stories about girls and girls, so why not boys and boys?'' he asks.

In Scotland, where the equivalent legislation was abolished two years ago, Christian groups and the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers have urged schools and libraries not to stock it. The response has appalled and amazed Magrs, not least because Strange Boy is by his own admission ''95%'' autobiographical. ''Suddenly, you're not allowed to write about your own childhood in a particular way. It's definitely an issue that still needs talking about if this is how it's treated in 2002.'' It also brings out the finger-wagging teacher in him. To the carpers he says: ''First go and read the text.''

By contrast, in Dublin, with its great respect for the written word, a big crowd flocked to hear him talk about Strange Boy after a rave review in the Irish Times and not one person complained. Perhaps that's because they had read it. For, despite the stushie over here, the fact is that this book contains no explicit sex.

Rather, woven into the plot are scenes in which David starts to explore his sexuality, without coming to any definite conclusions. At one point, for instance, David and John share a camping expedition in which they touch one another's penises, but that's as far as it goes.

Magrs argues that this is the sort of experimentation that most boys indulge in around the beginning of puberty, regardless of the sexual

orientation they eventually settle into.

What marks out young David as an outsider is his feeling of disgust about homosocial experiences of male bonding. ''He's defining himself against that. He feels very uncomfortable with this sort of laddishness,'' says Magrs, 32. This is most explicit in the scene where his father takes him to the police baths: ''I hate those places. Dad notices me wearing my towel as a dress, kicking off my clothes. He pulls it away. 'We're all lads together here,' he says crossly, and, to prove it, takes off his own underpants. He jiggles his penis absent-mindedly. It is as worn and red as his face.''

Magrs says he's wanted to write this book for a long time: ''You look to fiction for models of how you might live. Nothing like this was available to me. That's why I looked to superhero comic books.''

Unusually for a book with a 10-year-old lead character, it's aimed at the 13-plus age group, though ''with advice'' he believes it could be read by younger children. He insists on the integrity of a story, based very closely on his own recollections. ''All I can say is that the ages are true.'' To distort David's age for the sake of political correctness would be patronising to the readers, he says.

Part of what strikes true about Strange Boy is David's innocence and shock at how much other kids knew. ''There's a danger that we've started thinking about books as lifestyle commodities with men reading Nick Hornby etc. I've always thought that books should take you beyond your experience.''

He is also concerned that the furore about male sexuality in Strange Boy could limit the potential audience. ''Gayness is a metaphor for lots of other things that can make children feel like outsiders, like being very quiet or very intelligent. Often it's the children who read a lot. They watch and think about things rather than throwing themselves into life. I have a sister who is 15. She's really bright, but she's always playing herself down so that she won't get

bullied. At least these things are talked about now. They weren't then.''

His own schooldays were grim. Having decided to brazen out his sexuality, he was forced to run the gamut of the school thugs each day on the way home. He was an obvious target. Not many pupils at his new town comprehensive dressed like an extra from Brideshead Revisited.

And though his mother always accepted him just for what he was, he hasn't seen his dad since he was queer-bashed at 17 and his father was the police officer who turned up at his door to take a statement.

Is it easier for young gays today? ''Yes, definitely. People are more educated, though I don't think schools have changed much. 'Gay', 'poof', and 'queer' are still general terms of abuse at school before children even know what they mean, but I think people have absorbed different attitudes from television. When I was 14 I was obsessed with David Bowie and that was considered quite subversive then. Now Will Young comes out after Pop Idol or two of the Back Street Boys get married and nobody thinks anything of it.''

Strange Boy by Paul Magrs (Simon & Schuster (pounds) 7.99). All the Rage, his adult novel about a 1980s Eurovision band with a transvestite manager (Allison & Busby (pounds) 9.99) is out in paperback this month. Paul Magrs is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday, August 24, at 6pm. Telephone bookings

0131 624 5050.