Let the watchword be 'open books'

18th May 2001 at 01:00
WO years ago, Quentin Blake was asked on Newsnight, "Why have a Children's Laureate?"As the first, he had no need to prove himself - part of the point of the award is to honour a lifetime of excellence - but by the time he threw off his laurels on Wednesday, Quentin's achievements had shown the value of the role, not least in the exhibition Tell Me A Picture, still showing at the National Gallery.

Yet why would any author not touched with the feather of madness accept the position? Who would choose to wave goodbye to two uninterrupted writing years to face a slew of requests in every post and endless demands to air their views on any subject even remotely linked to the matter of children and reading?

I would, with good reason. Like most present-day writers for children, I've been in training for the job for years.

Show me the author who hasn't trogged round practically every county of Britain trying to enthuse people about the virtues of fiction - most particularly their own - and I will show you someone whose career took off before this obsession with the author, rather than the book, began. Or someone whose sheer, hurtling economic force assured their freedom before they were committed to those on whose good offices access to most books depends: librarians, booksellers, parents, teachers, children's book groups, publishers' marketing departments - the list goes on.

And you start caring. When I began, I was a writer sitting at a kitchen table. My only interest was in the books I was reading and the novel I was writing. Now everything touches me. I'm irritated by the levels of ignorance and indifference that so often attend issues to do with books for children and the complacency in which this ignorance is usually steeped.

I'm glad it's finally understood that we are one of the strongest areas of publishing, but concerned that, in a market where accessibility is a virtue, the discussion should stay alive as to why some books are better than others. Could Jeffrey Archer win a major adult literary award without a rumpus? No. Could the equivalent happen in children's books? If we're not careful, it will.

I'd like to argue for more mature media reporting. The guilty all worked their reading passage from cosy bunny childhood tales up through levels of writing to match anything publshed for adults. Many have children. Yet, whenever fuss brews around a book for young people, they unthinkingly fall back on cliche and amnesia. "Move over, Noddy!" "Whatever happened to the Famous Five?" Imagine a level of debate about football so uninformed it took for granted that Preston North End is still a great team, or ran under the headline: "What on earth's happening to Bristol Rovers?" I'd like to keep speaking up for good provision for all libraries - especially their book funds. In 30 years I've yet to hear a parent say, "I do wish my child would spend a little more time on the computer." And I'm mightily offended when I get letters saying, "Please send a signed book so we can auction it to buy more software."

I'll keep reminding everyone that many boys do read with sensitivity and pleasure. In this laddish culture, our sons have fetched up almost more constrained than women before the feminist upheaval. When boys write to me, I am astonished by the depth of thought and feeling triggered by fiction - even fiction about girls. Wise teachers know a boy would rather be pegged out and eaten by driver ants than admit in class that he's content to read a book about feelings. The letters I get tell it very differently.

I'm optimistic. After a sticky time, libraries are valued and back on track. I chart the improvements in primary education through my postbag. I know there have never been so many books about. There are still huge problems of accessibility. Working parents are pushed for time to take their children to the library and uneasy about them going alone. Yet all children need an endless supply of books - in part for the sheer enchantment fiction brings, but also because, as the Scottish poet Norman McCaig pointed out, "to have unexamined emotional responses is as much a sign of immaturity as to have unexamined beliefs". And, he added, dangerous, too.

So, while so many of our children are still so impoverished in this respect, there is a job to be done. I have inklings of a way it might be tackled: quickly, cheaply and easily. I have two years to do it. Watch me try.

Anne Fine was appointed Children's Laureate this week. Her novels are published by Puffin, Doubleday and Egmont Children's Books. Her next book,"Not so Hotso", will be published by Puffin in November

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