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New chapter after life at the podium

Denyse Presley talks to Anne Fine as she seeks a quiet life after two years as children's laureate

Anne Fine has recently returned from Melbourne, where she became a grandmother. In April, at the end of a hectic two years as children's laureate, she took off to be with her daughter for the baby's arrival.

At the time she said: "After a really demanding two years in which I feel I've come to know every railway station, motorway interchange and speaker's podium in the country, I've decided that, when I do return, I'm going straight into a witness protection programme to try to achieve enough quiet and enough of a settled life to write a book."

Our interview is sandwiched between a visit to the hairdresser's and a train journey to London, where Ms Fine is opening a tactile wall at Wimbledon's Linden Lodge school for severely visually impaired children, her last official engagement as children's laureate.

She formed the idea for it after realising how difficult blind people find reading. She had been working with charities for the blind to produce a Braille books list as part of the Internet-based Home Library scheme she set up to encourage book ownership and reading.

"By age 13, children may have 20 pairs of trainers, 30 frocks and 18 pairs of jeans but only three books. The Home Library is there to point out that books are at least as valuable as other possessions," she says.

Bookplates, some designed by leading illustrators, are an integral feature of the Home Library website and they can be downloaded.

Ms Fine has been particularly keen to reach impoverished areas, where book chains tend to steer clear but charity shops often thrive. Oxfam shops give away some of the bookplates with their books.

In the moments away from the podium, Ms Fine put together three children's poetry collections entitled A Shame to Miss - 1 is for 6-10s, 2 for 8-12s and 3 for older children (Corgi, 2002) - because she felt children are often only introduced to the kind of poetry that supposedly immediately appeals to everyone. "Just because it's accessible doesn't mean to say a child values it," she says.

When she talks about reading, the word "value" crops up often.

The third collection is demanding, while the other two are often difficult, but they all have something that would appeal to a child. "In some cases it's the story," she says. "In other cases it's the idea that they're not the only one who is terrified to go to bed."

At book signings, parents have told to her why their exam-sitting children have marked particular poems. "Some were marked because they were favourites," she says.

"In one case they were all political ones. 'What's your daughter going to be?' I asked and was told she wants to be a justice lawyer.

"Another one had marked Charles Tomlinson's 'Tramontana at Lerici' - which is just the hardest poem in the book, I thought - and I was told: 'He's doing a painting and the poem has got what he's trying to get in his painting.' " In the spring, Ms Fine sparked controversy when she called for Melvin Burgess's novel Doing It - about the sexual exploits of three teenage boys - to be pulped because it demeaned girls. She reluctantly talks about her newspaper criticism.

"I wrote it because the book is a step beyond anything that's been published under a children's imprint in this country. I didn't get involved in the controversy afterwards. I wanted people to know that children's publishing felt free to publish this book."

A fan of classic books, Ms Fine is delighted that T.H. White's The Once and Future King, telling the Authurian legend, has been reprinted in paperback.

"There's a good case for making (classic books) available to the good reader and perhaps even subsidised a little by other books," she says.

"Children are now reading longer books. We've got J.K. Rowling to thank for that and if you look at Philip Pullman's Stanley Lockhart series, he was never put off by the fact that children didn't read longer books. You wouldn't now find a publisher daunted by a lengthy children's novel."

One book she would like to see become a classic is The Fat Man by New Zealander Maurice Gee. She suspects some cultural snobbery is behind why it never made our bookshelves.

"Another thing we have to thank J.K. Rowling for is that since her books have been so extraordinarily successful in the US, American publishers aren't pushing to make your book a little more American."

At last year's Edinburgh International Book Festival, Ms Fine criticised preoccupation with how writers write. "It seems to me that art is a product and not a process," she says, though she accepts nosiness about writers'

handwriting or whether they were great correctors.

She rejects the trend towards deconstructing books in schools, particularly at primary level. "I've met so many teachers in utter despair over teaching English, who want to bring back the magic of reading and not be looking at, say, how often Anne Fine uses the word 'and' in one sentence," she says. "I think teachers just want the ideologues to back off and let them fly."

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