It's a difficult age to please, too, because of the wide and unpredictable range of knowledge and sophistication. I think it helps to use the journalist's dictum: "Never overestimate the reader's knowledge, and never underestimate his or her intelligence." You can usually weave the information they need into the story without patronising all those who know it already and think everyone else does.
The business of shifting levels of sophistication is a lot more difficult. There's such a fine line between cashing in on a child's acceptance of the unlikely or the magical, and offering them something they think is "silly". It's hard to get it right. But whereas you might get away with a horse in the garage, for example, you're likely to stretch credibility too far if you try to suggest that Mum filled up the drier without even noticing it.
If it's real, keep it real. Granny is more likely to be found queuing for her turn on the flumes than in her armchair knitting. These days, huge numbers of grannies still work, and the rest have busy lives. So don't send this fictional child of yours off to Gran for the summer, especially not unaccompanied on a train (since she'd end up in care, not at Margate). Cooks wiping their floury hands on aprons, little girls on freshly scrubbed doorsteps blowing bubbles through clay pipes - all this stuff is back from when television sets still had to warm up, and means nothing to today's child. Remember that attitudes have changed as well. Someone sent me a book that began, "A mouse ran across the schoolroom floor. All the little girls screamed and jumped on their chairs, and all the boys roared and chased it." She couldn't think why the children's publishers (98 per cent women) weren't keen, and she probably didn't realise our readers take against this sort of thing even more quickly than we do.
So what do children like? Well, they love to identify with someone or something in the story. It doesn't matter what. It could be another child, or a puppy, or even a lost umbrella. But they do have to care. So tell us, all the way through just what your character is thinking or feeling.
Above all, remember that children's books really matter. It's William and Jennings and the Famous Five who make us readers for ever. And I still miss those glorious miserable wet days my daughters and I spent in the double bed, spreading crumbs and reading, reading, reading. First, me to them. Then, them to me. And, when the youngest was skilled enough, quietly in a row, with the occasional, "Mum, what's this word?" Next time the urge to shop strikes, go to the library instead. Then back to bed. You'll end up better off, and happier. Believe me, so will they.
Anne Fine's latest adult novel, `Telling Liddy', is published by Bantam, pounds 15.99.
The Independent/ Scholastic Story of the Year Competition, now in its sixth successful year, aims to encourage top writing for the very difficult to please six to nine year old age group. To help you meet the challenge, some of our most successful novelists and scriptwriters have explained how they set about writing compelling narrative. In this, the final week of the competition, Anne Fine, whose award-winning children's novels include Madam Doubtfire and GoggleEyes talks to Nicole Veash about the pitfalls of writing for young readers.
Story of the Year 6 offers a pounds 2,000 prize for the winner, with pounds 500 each for two runners up. The top 10 stories will be published in an anthology by Scholastic Children's Books. You are invited to submit stories of 1,500-2,500 words which must arrive on or before 28 February 1998 at: PO BOX 21302 LONDON WC1A 1PE. You may enter only once and entries must be made by the writer, not on his/her behalf. Entries must be typewritten, double-spaced and on one side of the paper only. We will not accept stories with illustrations. Manuscripts will not be returned, so please keep a copy. All entries must be unpublished, but published writers may enter with new material. Each entry must be submitted with both a cover page and title page. The cover page must feature the story title, and the entrant's name, address and telephone number. The title page must feature only the title of the story. The story should start on a new page, and the author's name must not feature on any of these pages, so that all entries can be judged anonymously. The winning story will be published in The Independent subsequent to the final judging of the competition which concludes on 22 May 1998. The top three stories and up to 10 others will be published in the autumn, in the anthology Story of the Year 6 by Scholastic Children's Books.
The competition is not open to employees of, or relatives of employees of Scholastic Ltd or Newspaper Publishing plc or anyone connected with the competition. Proof of posting cannot be accepted as proof of delivery. No responsibility can be accepted for entries which are delayed, damaged, mislaid or wrongly delivered. The judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. Entry grants to Scholastic Ltd the exclusive right to publish an entrant's story in all formats throughout the world for the full legal term of copyright. A copy of the form of the contract may be obtained on application to Scholastic Ltd. By submitting an entry an entrant agrees to be bound by the terms of and to sign this agreement if called upon to do so. Any story chosen for publication in the anthology that does not win one of the top three cash prizes will receive a fee of pounds 200. Any entry not submitted in the form specified will be deemed invalid. If your story is not published in the anthology or in the newspaper by the end of December 1998, these rights revert to you. Entry into this competition implies acceptance of these rules.