Letter from a Laureate: Anne Fine
To celebrate 20 years of the Waterstones Children's Laureates in 2019, we asked every Laureate to tell us their thoughts, memories and aims while holding the most inspiring post in children's literature.
Here is what Anne Fine had to say.
I was delighted to be invited to be the second Children's Laureate. I took it as both an honour and a splendid opportunity. I'd had several projects in mind, and it was clear that, with the prestige of the Laureateship behind me for two full years, I could make progress with them all.
I'd always had a private passion for book plates. When I was young, my parents bought an old house, and in the cellar was a trunk of ancient mildewed books, all of which had an intricate coat of arms pasted onto the first page. 'Ex libris Viscount Molesworth'.
Free online books for children
Our libraries are now open for much shorter hours, parents are busier, and with new safety worries, fewer and fewer of our children have the old freedom to travel alone to change their library books. But our charity shops overflow with donated items, including many high-quality – often barely read – books, priced very cheaply. So I wrote to over 200 of our finest children's book illustrators and cartoonists, asking them to design modern bookplates in black and white, or in colour, for children of all ages. These were scanned onto a website and are permanently and freely downloadable. Teachers, parents and librarians all over the world continue to print off these beautiful and original bookplates for encouragement, or rewards for work done – even just as templates for drawing with coloured pencils.
But the main idea is, of course, that the young person thinks in terms of choosing their favourite bookplates, and sticking them in any book they find, in order to build up their own "home library" (just as Viscount Molesworth had once done).
Poetry that every child should read
Another concern of mine was that few children were introduced the very best of our poetic culture. There were reasons for this. We have a most "inclusive" educational system, and many of the children in our schools do not have English as a first language. This means that much of the poetry that used to be seen as open to all is now perceived as "too hard" or "too sophisticated in vocabulary". A culture of instantly accessible, overly simple, child-centred "poetry" – some of it little more than childish, silly rhyming verse better termed as doggerel – had taken its place.
I had, over the years, collected so many poems that I thought it would be a tragedy for any child to miss. And so I put together three collections, A Shame to Miss 1, 2 and 3 (for the various age groups). The range of poets and poems is remarkable. Indeed, the only thing they have in common is that they are wonderful poems. I added the occasional footnote so that my readers could more easily understand a few of them; but I had chosen poems with which young people would easily find themselves in sympathy, either for the situations described, or the emotions expressed.
I am proud of these three anthologies of verse, and continue to get letters about how much pleasure they bring.
Picture books for the visually impaired
Authors visit so many different sorts of schools. I had a particular sympathy for children who were blind, or had severe visual impairment. Around the time I became Laureate, I found that a scheme to create braille picture books had stalled for lack of funds. (One might ask, why do blind children need illustrated books? But many children are in the process of learning braille because they are losing sight gradually. Many blind parents want to share picture books with sighted children. Blind children proudly wish to read aloud to sighted parents.)
It was easy, as Laureate, to persuade the four richest authors I knew to join me in offering enough money to get this scheme started. ClearVision is now a postal library of interleaved braille picture books of all sorts, with over 13,000 titles.
Some books are simply tactile. Most have brailled (or the somewhat easier "moon") print. This has been an important adjunct to the more traditional libraries of brailled books, and it caters both to the needs of the younger child and those of children with added learning difficulties. I'm proud that this project, too, is still going strong so many years after my term of office.
Also, visiting schools for the blind, I had realised the attractions of tactile surfaces, especially those with built-in tactile games. So I persuaded an architect friend to design one for Linden Lodge School playground, and there it still stands.
Proud but busy
Being the Laureate was exhausting. I gave so many talks and keynote addresses on so many topics – education, creativity, reading, social involvement, my own work. It never seemed to stop. I visited endless schools and universities, and even the high-security prisons where the brailling units for ClearVision are sited. I have never been so busy, or sent so many emails or letters. I caught so many trains that my accountant even queried my travel expenses! I did not find a single moment in the entire two years to do any of my own work.
The day I finished was a beautiful spring morning. I felt as if a whole new life was opening up. I was so happy that I started on a comedy called The More the Merrier. Just sitting at the kitchen table writing a book has never, ever been such a pleasure.
I would not have missed the opportunity the Laureateship offered me. I'm proud that every single one of my projects is still working well and giving pleasure. I am immensely grateful to those who helped me in my schemes, most particularly the late Lois Beeson, Marion Ripley, Angus Forsyth and Daniel Isted. But if you were to ask what advice I'd give a future Laureate, it would be 'Book your holidays now'. And if you were to ask me to take the role again, I'd say a very prompt and firm, 'Thanks. But no thanks.'