I thought I knew Anne Fine. Actually, I really did know Anne Fine, half a lifetime ago when I was miserable at school in Edinburgh (it’s a funny thing, but anyone who has ever known Edinburgh can tell with 100% accuracy just which school I mean). Lots of well-meaning grown-ups said they were sure it couldn’t be that bad really, and I’d soon settle in. And then I met Anne, the friend of a friend of my mother’s, who grinned mischievously and said “You’re quite right, it’s a ghastly place.” The relief of feeling like a person of judgement instead of a moody freak is something I can barely describe, and for the next two years it saved no end of energy and emotional anxiety, as well as providing common ground with by far the most interesting people in the place – the other misfits and malcontents.
It’s no surprise to find the same no-nonsense empathy and deft comic touch in Fine’s books. She began writing when cooped up in a chilly flat in Edinburgh with a small baby. (Does that sound familiar? How different would the landscape of children’s literature be without Edinburgh’s bone-sapping cold? No Anne Fine, no J K Rowling and a huge pirate-shaped hole around Robert Louis Stevenson, the frail child who took to spinning stories around an oddly-shaped island in the public gardens below his bedroom window in Heriot Row.) When we met her, she had published four or five children’s books: we read them all, and the four or five that followed, until “critically acclaimed” was succeeded by “prizewinning” and then “bestselling”, and ultimately “Children’s Laureate”. As I say, I thought I knew Anne Fine. This week’s post would be a piece of cake.
A quick count proved me wrong. Besides seven or eight razor-sharp books for adults, sometimes uncomfortably close to home, there are around 50 books for children of all ages. Fifty! I’d read maybe ten or twelve, too long ago to remember in detail to post. Time for some rapid revision (thank you, Kensington Central, Paddington and Barbican libraries).
Like any anxious candidate, I started with the shorter, easier numbers, the hugely popular Killer Cat series. These are outstanding in the dreary lowlands of short chapter books for beginner readers – possibly because the first Killer Cat book was written quite spontaneously and not as part of a lengthy, concept-dependent, formulaic and lazily-written series. Tuffy the Killer Cat’s voice is perfectly natural, conversational and easy to read – and brilliantly funny, with its sardonic, aggrieved, misunderstood tone. It’s enough to make any family look twice at its wary, aloof, all-seeing cat – and then once again at its own absurdities. Read The Killer Cat’s Christmas for a bah-humbug seasonal treat.
Pitched a little higher, Under a Silver Moon revisits an earlier short story, A Sudden Swirl of Icy Wind, with the Arabian Nights-style tale of a spoiled and sickly caliph-prince, restored to health by an unlikely friend with an unlikely cure. Under a Silver Moon is beautifully produced by Walker Books, with gentle line illustrations, and the storytelling style is so seductive that, as in the best tradition, exotic and unfamiliar words become not a stumbling point but a part of the spell.
Then there’s a good handful of books for what they call “newly confident readers”: springy, vivid, perceptive and funny, slightly longer chapter books with a nice line in subversive messages. Take Bill’s New Frock, in which for one dreadful day Bill Simpson wakes up as agirl and is compelled to go to school in a frilly pink frock. Nobody – not his parents, not his friends, not his teachers – seems to notice anything amiss, and Bill learns some uncomfortable lessons about what is expected and tolerated from girls and boys.
Or there’s How to Write Really Badly, with mouthy, multiply-expelled new boy Chester plunged into the ultimate nightmare: a school so unrelentingly nice that he finds himself taking sides with chaotic Joe, and taking a particular interest in his dreadful handwriting, his disorganised desk… and the model-making talent that Chester decides has gone unrecognised for far too long.
At around the same time, Fine’s books for slightly older readers were beginning to attract attention and awards. First came Madame Doubtfire, now a Puffin Modern Classic (as is Diary of a Killer Cat) and source of the highly successful Robin Williams movie Mrs Doubtfire. Brilliantly observed, as well as painfully, shamingly funny, it finds the three Hilliard children trapped between divorced, resentful, unscrupulous parents – calling to mind my friend Patrick’s pithy description of the family law in which he specialises: “People behaving like animals, especially where there are children involved.” It’s much easier to warm to Daniel, the father and out-of-work actor who resorts to false identity and surprisingly convincing drag to pose as a nanny-housekeeper in order to see more of his children. Daniel, forever mad with prissy, successful ex-wife Miranda, certainly has all the best lines – but as he’s forced into role as the wise, dependable Madame Doubtfire, he has to face some ugly truths about his part in the break-up, and some devastating ones about its effect on the children.
Carnegie-medal-winning Goggle-eyes has a more robust heroine in Kitty Killin, stroppy and righteous and a born storyteller. When dependable classmate Helly comes into school on a raw edge between rage and tears, no-one can understand why Kitty is sent to talk her down. What on earth do they have in common..? …apart from divorced mothers taking up with ghastly, grey-haired paunchy types whom their daughters can’t stand. Kitty’s scorn for the mild, sardonic Gerald (ever afterwards Goggle-eyes) is blistering. Mum is an idealist who marches on demos; Goggle-eyes follows share prices (and has some pithy things to say about the marchers’ impact). Then comes the disastrous day when Goggle-eyes in his good suit tags along on a demo, Mum makes one misplaced gesture and Kitty lets fly…
Flour Babies won a second Carnegie Medal with the story of unruly class 4C, their resigned teacher Mr Cartright and, most specifically, big Simon hiding the ongoing hurt of his father walking out when he was weeks old. For 4C, all the exciting stalls in the forthcoming Science Fair are out of bounds, and only drippy Textiles, Nutrition, Domestic economy and the like are left. Only Simon sees the potential of Child Development, aka flour babies: baby-sized flour sacks that have to be carried and cared for through three weeks, and written up in a diary. Simon’s motives aren’t exactly pure: a class-worth of flour sacks has the potential for a truly epic and explosive kickabout at the end of the test period. Then something odd happens to Simon and the rest of 4C, and the diaries take a surprising course.
Step by Wicked Step starts compellingly in the best horror-story tradition: the five children, separated from the rest or their school trip, arriving at a spooky manor house, late at night, during a thunderstorm and a power cut. In their room they find a secret door, and a stair to another room, long-neglected, and a book with a terrible tale in it. One by one, they tell their own tales as children of stepfathers and stepmothers – some angry, some sad, some funny, some reconciled, all poignant and with a rare understanding.
Sometimes, though, it has to be all right to laugh at families, and especially the hapless Mountfield family with their impossible relations. There’s plenty of Christmas cheer for the reader, if not for the Mountfields, in The More The Merrier, with Ralph Mountfield attempting to keep his sanity (and his mother attempting to keep meals on the table) through the Christmas visit of snarky Great-Granny, quavery Great Aunt Ida, sponging Uncle Geoffrey and his delinquent twins, feckless Uncle Tristram, fussing Aunt Susan and insufferable Cousin Titania, always ready to break into a song or a dance, to the others’ consternation. For anyone remotely dreading the arrival of family this Christmas, this is a tonic; for everyone else, it’s just wickedly, laugh-out-loud, read-out-the-good-bits funny.
As is the summer sequel, Eating Things on Sticks. After Ralph’s brother Harry accidentally burns the kitchen down (don’t ask), the least worst option while the house is redecorated is to persuade Uncle Tristram to take him away for a week. Only Harry thinks this is a good idea, and he’s soon disabused: Uncle Tristram has a pretty new girlfriend in a hideous house on a treeless island where almost everyone has a beard and there’s nothing to eat but pork pies and nettle pudding. And there’s no computer, TV, DVD or even radio; and no ferry back to the mainland until the following Saturday. In the meantime, the only thing to look forward to is the island fair and the Eating Things on Sticks competition; and what are all those police helicopters doing?
I couldn’t post on Anne Fine without any mention of her two darkest and most compelling books. They’re probably not Christmas reads (unless you can be sure of a particularly cheery and reassuring Christmas to offset them), and I would say too unsettling for most under-twelves, but outstanding and thought-provoking for older readers. Road of Bones is set in some vast, nameless dictatorship which is mainly Stalinist Russian in flavour, but also resounds with hideous double-speak slogans that suggest Maoist China or North Korea. Grain and livestock are not looted by the State’s thugs, but “requisitioned” and “redistributed”. Machinery breaks down not due to neglect but to “wreckers” – the unfortunate operatives, who are swiftly marched off to the gulags. Hardship, mistrust and State brutality are corrosive. When twelve-year-old Yuri unwisely raises his own voice in protest, he escapes arrest by a series of small miracles; but a second outburst sends him inevitably to the gulag with a “lenient” sentence of ten years. You want this to be a tale of courage, determination and triumph against the odds. It takes a little while to realise that the story is turning in a less expected and far more sinister way. The quality of the writing is superb and seductive, lulling the reader into complicity before the tremendous moral force of the conclusion. Not a comforting book, at all, but an important one.
As is The Tulip Touch, a beautifully-evoked story of a sinister friendship. Natalie moves to a new town when her father is taken on to manage the grand old Palace Hotel. Late in the summer, they meet an odd little girl in a cornfield with a kitten.
A few days later, Natalie meets Tulip again at school, and they quickly become friends; but as Natalie soon finds, no-one else wants to be friends with Tulip. She is forbidden to visit Tulip’s house, and on her one visit is terrified by the shabbiness and dereliction, the chained, dogs, the weedy garden full of broken bottles, Tulip’s mother’s tuneless humming and her father’s silent menace. Tulip, on the other hand, is enchanted by Natalie’s kind family and the glamour and plenty of the Palace, especially when she is allowed to spend Christmas Day at the hotel, an exception that becomes a habit. Tulip is a brilliantly-realised character, proud and pitiable with her sinister games and her outrageous stories. We’re as much under her spell as Natalie is – and with the same growing unease, as Tulip starts lighting fires in dustbins and paying creepy visits to a bereaved family. Everyone talks about Tulip, but only Natalie really talks to her; and suddenly Natalie is frightened, and doesn’t want to be Tulip’s friend any more. A few weeks of avoiding Tulip, and one nasty conversation, and the friendship is over… isn’t it? A brilliant, humane, beautifully readable and rightly uncomfortable book.