BOOKS / Second Thoughts: Family planning for kids: Prize-winning children's author Anne Fine looks back at Flour Babies (Puffin, pounds 3.50)

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The Independent Culture
THE DAY one of my daughters came home from school announcing a six week module on 'opening a bank account' - to my mind a task accomplished by someone of normal intelligence in less than half an hour - was the day Flour Babies was born. I wanted to write a book that heaped scorn on the new-fangled Philistinism of so many of our secondary schools. The research was enough to turn any tax- payer's hair grey. And I hope I've done justice to some of the voices crying in the wilderness, most notably that of Dena Attar, whose delicious polemic on the teaching of social and domestic subjects in schools (Wasting Girls' Time, Virago, 1990) furnished a good deal of the comedy for the second chapter.

The Flour Babies themselves came as a gift stuffed into my hand as I walked out of Boots: a copy of Awake], the Jehovah's Witnesses' newsletter. (Yes, I read everything.) On the back was one of those amusing snippets about a California High School whose pupils' unplanned pregnancy rates shot up so high that, in desperation, a project was begun. Each pupil was given a six-pound sack of flour to care for over three weeks. The 'flour babies' had to be kept dry, clean and safe at all times. If the owner went out, a responsible babysitter had to be found, and each pupil had to keep a diary. At the end, a typical commentary was: 'I was amazed. It didn't scream. It couldn't crawl. I didn't have to feed it and it didn't mess its diapers. And still I couldn't wait to be rid of it]'

Strangely, it was only with the distance publication brings that I realised what a personal book it was. I always wanted babies. Left to myself (if you see what I mean), I'd have had dozens. But I had no idea what a relentless job child-raising is. I've worked for 20 years now with my old dressing- gown rolled up against the bottom of the door. (I daren't wear earplugs. What if they really screamed?) I've worked through nursery rhymes, through heavy metal, and oboe and violin, grades one to eight. And I wrote Flour Babies while my last child came up to her last school exams. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel getting brighter and brighter. All my unruly hero's frustrations with his flour baby mirror mine. If I were semi-literate, our diary entries might have matched. Even his fierce protectiveness reminds me of me. And on the very day he starts the Glorious Flour Explosion, and sails out into his unfettered youth, I probably put my last child on that train to college, unrolled the dressing-gown, and worked in peace.

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