Children's Laureate 2001-2003
Carnegie Medal 1989, 1992
Whitbread Award 1993, 1996
Guardian Fiction Award 1990
When it was first published, Step by Wicked Step took some reviewers' breath away.
But it was hard to argue an author shouldn't write about a state of affairs that affects so many of our children. And, at heart, I think the adults who read the book simply shared the same shock I felt when, after walking my children to school under a giant billboard that declared, "Since You Passed This Poster Yesterday, Another 400 Children Were Affected by Divorce", I began researching the subject of what is often called 'reconstituted' families.
I knew from the lives around me that parental separation was only the beginning of the complications for children. Often the really tough time comes when one parent or the other sets up home with someone new, and the children aren't ready.
We have six stories in the book. Only five could be fitted into the radio adaption - and even that was a squeeze. Both book and radio adaption have the structure of boxes within boxes. The children's school visit to Harwick Hall provides both the outer frame and the explanation for why all five children should just 'happen' to be from broken families. Richard Clayton Harwick's long-hidden journal provides an inner tale that triggers off, one by one, each of the stories of the listening children.
I quite deliberately made the toughest emotional tale that of the Victorian child, Richard Harwick. Set in the past, with all the protagonists now lying safely in their graves, any child disturbed by the sheer antagonism between the prototypically overbearing and unfeeling stepfather and the young grieving Richard can comfort themselves that this sort of thing is part of 'history'.
Those of us who know better - including a host of young readers whose depth of feeling and unhappy circumstances may mirror Richard's more than we care to think - can take the story more at its emotional face value.
I've been a shade more protective in the other stories, sometimes by showing things well on the way to a happy ending (Claudia and Pixie's stories), or by showing how the sheer determination of a child can give strength and purpose (Colin's story). Ralph's story is a robust one from start to finish.
I've tried to be honest about the lack of choices most children are offered, and the lack of real opportunity to speak frankly and openly about their feelings and situations to the adults around them. To this end, I've shifted through scores of perfectly normal 'case studies' of families after divorce, and picked what I worked out was a fair cross-section of scenarios and emotional states.
If adults reading the book or listening to the adaption are startled by this, I think the only thing that I can say is, 'Look around you, and listen.' Because none of these stories is particularly unusual. (Colin's seems saddest, of course; but, from the numbers of runaways on our streets, I think we can assume that even Richard Harwick's story is commoner, even now, than we'd care to imagine.)
The book's been a great success in schools. There is, of course, the 'autobiography' element which can be mined to advantage. (Each child has a very distinct story-telling outlook and style.) The mix of sexes in the stories works well with classes of all sorts. The sheer 'domestic' element of the tales ("Our family's not like that." "My family is.") keeps up the interest.
But, from the letters I get, what really seems to touch a nerve about Step by Wicked Step is the depth of the children's feelings. All too many tales for young children assume far too narrow an emotional range. Many children do enjoy 'fun', yes. But all of them, like adults, lead complicated and demanding emotional lives, often lived in strained and stretched families.
In giving five of them so intimate and honest a voice, Step by Wicked Step empowers all who share the story. It was, emotionally, one of the hardest books I've ever chosen to write. But I only have to read the letters of children responding to it, to be glad I kept at it.
Update: since Anne Fine wrote these notes, Collins Educational have published the playscript. This is an entirely fresh adaptation, and not the broadcast version.
More about Step by Wicked Step, including what Anne wrote about it for her child readers.