How To Write Really Badly by Anne Fine

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How To Write Really Badly by Anne Fine

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Anne Fine has written lots and lots of books. If you are looking at the many Fine titles on offer in search of a decent story for a little one at home who's just beginning to read alone, look no further. Choose How To Write Really Badly. It isn't too long. It isn't full of difficult words. Yet it also isn't without challenge. It's the twin story of the new kid on the block and the kid with an undiscovered disability. There's nothing of which to disapprove. There's an underdog to root for. And there's a rich vein of silly humour. It's pitched very nicely indeed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 112 Date: August 2002
Publisher: Egmont Books Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1405200618

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"'We have somebody new this term. Isn't that nice?' beamed Miss Tate."

Chester Howard doesn't think so. He's at his umpteenth new school and he doesn't think much of it at all. Everyone's so sickeningly nice! The teachers drip with saccharine welcomes, the children are so well-behaved it's frightening. Chester thinks Walbottle Manor (Mixed) is going to be just as much of a pain in the neck as all the other schools he's attended. And to make matters worse, Miss Tate seats him next to Joe Gardener, class dunce, class fidget, and generally irritating person. And to make matters worse still, there's a project to be done. Everyone must make a How To book. And everyone's choosing subjects of "bloodcurdling niceness". It's not Chester's bag, at all at all at all. And in any case, how will he ever be able to concentrate, sitting next to Joe? As far as Chester can see, it's going to be a long, long term.

I blow hot and cold on Anne Fine. She's highly thought of, having won just about all the major awards in the world of children's books. She's bagged the Carnegie Medal, the Smarties Award, the Whitbread Award, the list is endless. As the first Children's Laureate, she started up a super website - - but then shamefully neglected to update it for months on end. She makes a point of writing "issue-based" books about, for example, bullying, single parenthood and - as here, with How To Write Really Badly - dyslexia, but got all hot under the collar when people like Melvin Burgess wrote about teenage sex. Y'know, Anne - young teens don't have sex before they're ready because serious fiction about sex is written for them; they have sex before they're ready because of an overly-consumerist world bought into by their parents, because of peer pressure, but most of all because of hormones! Stop trying to censor serious writers, woman! She churns out books like there's no tomorrow and - unavoidably - they're not all great. There are, however, some absolute doozies amidst her catalogue and I think How To Write Really Badly is one of them.

It's a short book at just over a hundred pages of large type. And it's written in Fine's characteristically informal, colloquial style. Sentence structure is simple, vocabulary is challenging but always in context, imagery is kept to a minimum, and there is plenty of dialogue. It's full of funny one-liners and silly situations. I still laugh at some of them myself! As such, it's quite suitable for any child just able to read alone and equally attractive to an older child of seven or eight. It's also a breeze to read aloud. Happily, though, it's not a superficial story tacked on to a set of words deemed "appropriate" for a newly confident reader. It's a serious book with a proper plot and a think-about-it theme. How To Write Really Badly is about individuality, it's about searching for the talent lying in us all, it's about how we treat people who are "different". And it's also about the redeeming power of honest friendship. So it's about quite a lot really.

Joe is dyslexic, although it's never spelt out as such, rather demonstrated. He struggles at school because, although he has extra lessons and one-to-one teaching, no one has recognised the "different" way in which his mind works. He simply can't succeed at traditional lessons. Chester is the new kid on the block. Because his mother is a high-flying career woman, his family has moved around a lot and he's been to a lot of schools. He's never felt fully settled at any of them and because of this he's developed a wise-cracking, sarcastic exterior. As Chester begins to help Joe, he finds himself making a meaningful friendship outside his family for the very first time, although he takes a long while to realise what's happening. By the end of the book, it's heart warming to see his tough, but brittle exterior soften. It's also heart warming to see Joe begin to shine as focus is shifted from his "difference", "disability" - call it what you like - and towards his talents. For we all have talents.

So you can see that there are some very clear messages for children in How To Write Really Badly. It asks them to consider how unjust it is to write off a person because they struggle academically, it asks them to consider how they should treat people who aren't the same as themselves, it asks them to consider that there are benefits in giving as well as in taking. I would criticise the way in which Fine has drawn Joe's character as entirely sympathetic - missing is the anger, frustration and consequent destructive bad behaviour so often found in children who don't fit into the educational mainstream. However, this is a simple book, written for young children, and I suppose for that reason, my criticism is little more than a nit-pick. Happily too, How To Write Really Badly doesn't ask children to consider things in any kind of preachy way. Its issues are kindly and enjoyably wrapped in a little book chock full of jokes. It's very entertaining. And you can't ask for more than that, now can you?

Usually, I'd recommend books by Anne Fine for library borrowing. They are, generally, light and entertaining books but not classics. They appeal really to a narrow band of children between the ages of six and eight and not much beyond. They aren't really those magic books from childhood that you - or your child - will want to keep on the shelf forever. But this one, How To Write Really Badly, I think is worth buying. It's funny, it's sweet, and it's full of truth.

Somehow, it just... works.

For another story suitable for those children just beginning to read alone, try our review of Billy the Kid by Michael Morpurgo.

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Buy How To Write Really Badly by Anne Fine at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How To Write Really Badly by Anne Fine at


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