The new Children's Laureate wants to see many more young readers, Geraldine Brennan reports.
THE fruits of Quentin Blake's two years as the first Children's Laureate are visible: exhibitions, books, and a higher profile for the under-rated art of illustration.
Anne Fine, who picked up the Laureate's baton on Wednesday, hopes we will be also able to see where she's been, by counting more children's noses in books. But first, we will be able to hear her.
While writing more than 40 books for children and five novels for adults, she has been a vocal campaigner against everything that comes between children and quality books: library cuts, publishers who let their literary backlists slide out of print and, above all, ill-informed or lazy adults (including teachers, if necessary).
Her response to complaints that boys find the jackets of her novels for older children too girly is typical: "Take the jacket off. Cover it in brown paper." If the Laureate gets a coat of arms, her motto should be:
"Get over it. Move on."
It was surplus energy and impatience that fuelled her first novel, The Summer House Loon (published in 1978); when the first of her two daughters was a toddler and she ran out of library books in bad weather and couldn't get any more, she sat down at the kitchen table and started writing - not a book for her daughter, but one for herself.
Michael Morpurgo, a fellow children's author who initiated plans for the laureateship alongside the late Ted Hughes and spent three years on its steering committee, says Fine's appointment is "very good news for children's books.
"She is an established writer who has consistently been producing books that are part of the canon of children's literature and who is admired and respected by adults as much as she is enjoyed by children. She is also a very vital personality, very proactive, someone who is not afraid to say what she thinks.
"Quentin Blake is a hard act to follow but she will give the next two years a distinctive style."
Her aim for the two years is simply "more children reading more books more of the time" building on a reading climate that she perceives as healthier than it has been for some years. "The notion that books are superannuated and children don't read has been firmly knocked on the head," she said. "J K Rowling and Philip Pullman in particular have run a juggernaut through that idea in recent years, and the demanding writers who have always been there, such as Diana Wynne Jones, are being read. The only thing that is still lacking is the problem of access to the right book at the right time for some children."
She will oon unveil a "secret plan" to get books into children's hands ("it's so, so simple") and to build on social inclusion projects of the past few years. And she is constantly looking out for obstacles to be removed. "Library cards could be more child-friendly, for a start," she said.
The laureateship is awarded by a panel of critics and other key figures in the children's book world, with nominations from children taken into account (see below). Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman, Shirley Hughes and Michael Rosen were among the possibles this year, although there was no published shortlist.
In return for a pound;10,000 bursary, the laureate is expected to help create the readers of tomorrow - how they do it is up to them.
Anne Fine welcomes it as the lifetime achievement award that it is. "I'm very, very chuffed. You choose between writing and living. I hit 25 years of writing a while ago, that's 25 years of sitting at a desk with my head down. This is confirmation that the books are worth the effort."
She wants publishers to show support by keeping their classics in the catalogue despite sales figures ("My books, fortunately, are all in print - I've put my life's blood into every one of them") and marketing these titles as energetically as more mass-market ones.
"There is a moral issue that publishers have to face here. Adult readers who do not want to be fobbed off with the huge advertising campaign for the latest chick-lit novel can use the samizdat methods - join book groups and use the grapevine to find the books they want, but they are readers already. Every time you hand children a piece of highly advertised tosh that does nothing for them, you are sending them back to the computer screen."
Another Voice, 20
Critic Peter Hollindale has called Anne Fine's novels "comedies of growing up, with the underlying seriousness that all good comedy has", focusing on the conflicting ideals of adults and children.
In books including "Jennifer's Diary", "Flour Babies" (winner of the Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Children's Novel Award) and "How to Write Really Badly" (winner of the Special Educational Needs Book Award 1996), she empathises with the child who finds expectations at school hard to fulfil. Other books such as "Bad Dreams" respect the child's need for solitude; something she learned to treasure, having grown up with four sisters.
Novels for older primary readers upwards tackle the troubles of children in the various forms of the contemporary family (as in "Madam Doubtfire", "Goggle Eyes" and "Step by Wicked Step"), but almost always with humour.