CHILDREN'S SUMMER SPECIAL / Gladly, my cross-eyed bear: Fiammetta Rocco talks to the novelist Anne Fine, hot tip for this year's Carnegie Medal, about sad letters and bags of flour

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The Independent Culture
'SOME DAY I hope to be a writter (sic) and make people feel as you (do) with books.' Every year, more and more school-children write letters like this to Anne Fine. The 45-year-old writer from Barnard Castle has made her name, and achieved popularity in the 20 countries where her books are published, by concentrating on the difficult topics that children so badly need to see addressed and which parents so often ignore. Step-parents, divorce, bullying, the rights and wrongs of nuclear power: nothing is off-limits to Fine.

This particular letter came from a 12-year-old Yorkshire girl whose parents had separated. Her latest problem was mother's new - and horrible - boyfriend. 'I just wanted to say thanks for writing down what I couldn't put into words . . . I don't know if you ever went through this,' she wrote after reading how one of Fine's young heroines, Kitty Killin, coped with the same problem in Goggle Eyes, 'but you captured the anger, hurt and all the feelings that are jumbled up.'

To Anne Fine, responses like this are a touchstone. 'My books are about ideas. They make people think, and not just the children,' she says. But being deadly serious does not preclude a rich sense of the comic: the more difficult the subject, the funnier and more honest her fiction seems to become.

The Fine postbag is likely to be even bigger from next week if, as expected, she wins the Library Association's Carnegie Medal - the Booker prize of children's fiction - for her latest novel Flour Babies. It is a touching, somewhat implausible-sounding story. Class 4C is the naughtiest in an all-boys school. Tricked into presenting a project on child development (one of the few subjects they are capable of tackling) as their entry for the annual Science Fair, the boys are each asked to look after a sack of flour for three weeks. They aren't allowed to leave the sacks alone; the 'flour babies' are to be kept clean and dry, and regularly weighed. In addition, each boy is made to keep a diary to record his feelings about how he and his charge are faring. Yuck, they say, and you might be tempted to agree.

Certainly, most reviewers described the book as preposterous, but schoolteachers disagreed. The idea came from an article which Fine found in the Watchtower Bible Society's magazine Awake]. A San Francisco school with an unusually high pregnancy rate undertook the 'flour baby' project in an effort to make their teenagers think about what's involved in having a baby. After the project, the rate of teenage pregnancies plummeted.

In Fine's hands, the subject is skilfully treated, with a host of secondary characters who add wit and tension to the story. There are crotchety teachers, frustrated parents, neighbours who snigger behind their curtains, and, among the boys, a fine selection of baddies, greedies and school swots. Sceptical at first, the boys come to be deeply affected by the project. Six-foot Simon, a committed hooligan, gets more caught up than most and starts wondering why his own father walked out on him when he was six weeks old, and how his mother learned to cope on her own. It is a wise and hilariously funny book.

Anne Fine started writing after having a baby and dropping out of a secretarial course which had left her feeling that nothing could be more difficult than trying to learn shorthand. She and her philosopher husband had moved to Edinburgh in 1971, and lived in a top-floor flat with no central heating. 'I was so lonely, so miserable,' she admits. Yet out of this came her first and only truly sunny book, The Summer House Loon: 'I've grown more and more cheerful as I've got older, but the books have more of an edge to them.'

Flour Babies is her 25th children's book, and she is currently finishing her third adult novel. Goggle Eyes, the one which prompted the 12-year-old Yorkshire girl to write to Fine, won both the 1990 Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Award. It has recently been screened by the BBC, while another book, Madame Doubtfire, is being made into a full-length feature film by Home Alone 2 director Chris Columbus for release this Christmas. With the money from the film, Fine has bought a building lot next to her home in Barnard Castle, and hopes to return it to what it once was - a Victorian garden.

For such prolific output, Fine says she writes 'terrifically slowly'. Her brief encounter with shorthand turned her off modern technology. 'I use a 2B pencil and rub out constantly,' she says. 'I write a sentence, rub out and go over it again and again until it's absolutely right. Every single sentence hangs on the one before.' Comic writing is the slowest of all, and she often completes no more than half a page a day. It can take a while to invent a character who thinks Gladly My Cross I'd Bear is written Gladly, My Cross-eyed Bear.

For Fine, the Carnegie Medal has a particular significance, because the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was one of the great champions of the public library system, and Fine, a voracious reader from a very young age, was addicted to her local branch: 'My parents couldn't afford books, and the Carnegie's library endowments meant the difference between my having books to read or doing without. Carnegie to me was always a hero.

'I read in the bath, in bed, while I'm walking the dog. I know if I hadn't been a reader, I would never have been a writer.'

'Flour Babies' is published by Hamish Hamilton at pounds 8.99

(Photograph omitted)