Review: Step by Wicked Step, Anne Fine

 Number 1 – to explain – this is a children’s book, this is not something I read currently but I work with children from a variety of ages both in my job and in my free time and literacy is a big deal for me.  I do heartily recommend this as a read for children whether or not they are affected by divorce.  This is a rare book that gives a balanced view of the whole issue as well as being written by the ever wonderful Anne Fine.

A confession – I read back over this blog and noticed that I have a definite trend for reading books about complicated families.  This got me to thinking about why that would be and of course I thought about my own family which has often been described by outsiders as ‘complicated’ even though I don’t really see it – basically Dad#1 was a no-show, then when I was a teenager, I acquired Dad#2 – he’s the one who gets the title.  Anyway, I am aware that this makes me part of that most curious of creations, the ‘reconstituted family’.  And speaking as a member of one of these, I have to say that  we get terrible coverage in the fictional world.  Bluntly put, the nuclear family has its advantages but having a reconstituted family does not mean that you must have been brought up by wolves.  

Firstly, steer clear of Jacqueline Wilson, she basically writes misery memoirs for children – you could argue and no doubt argue very convincingly that she highlights issues that many young people have difficulty facing but all she ever seems to do is go on about how dreadful the situation is rather than find any kind of redemption.  Why oh why in the 21st century can we not just admit that not all stepfamilies are bad?  Mine are pretty awesome frankly and I feel very lucky to have acquired them – I didn’t always feel like that, I remember being a sulky teenager about my mother getting married and I got a card from one of her friends that just said, “Remember, this is not about you being forgotten, you are gaining an ally in life”.  And yes, it can be difficult, yes, people including children need to adapt but for heaven’s sake, you need to adapt throughout your whole life so why can’t we just look on the bright side?


So, if you’re looking for good fiction for children from reconstituted families then look no further than Anne Fine.  She is awesome – very probably one of the best children’s authors that there have ever been, she manages to tackle any number of ‘child issues’ without making it so glaringly unsubtle as with Jacqueline Wilson.  Additionally, I do think that the best ever feminist novel for children has got to be Bill’s New Frock – where Bill wakes up and discovers he is a girl, thereby learning how the way he is treated changes drastically simply by having to wear a dress for the day.  And to think that when I read it with my Mum when I was four I thought it was just a silly story …

The grand dame herself, Anne Fine

One of the novels Anne Fine is better known for is Goggle Eyes – when one day her classmate Helen comes into school very upset, Kitty is asked to go and talk to her.  This baffles everyone since Kitty is not known for her sensitivity, but it soon transpires that they have in common a mutual loathing for their stepfathers – or do they? As Kitty’s story progresses, she explains about how she grew fond of ‘Goggle Eyes’/Gerald as time went on.  Compare this to Jacqueline Wilson’s The Suitcase Kid, where the poor bedraggled child never settles in her own home, is permanently on a camp bed, has only a Sylvanian family figure to call a friend and ends up running away from home.  It’s misery memoirs for kids – rather than stating that yes, new family members are tricky but you have to give it time, the child is encouraged to wallow is despair.  Disappointing, Ms Wilson, disappointing.

So – why pick Step by Wicked Step rather than Goggle Eyes?  Well, first of all I do think that while Goggle Eyes deals rather specifically with the problems of dealing with a new partner, I can’t help but feel that Step by Wicked Step takes the whole issue of the reconstituted family as a whole and very heavily states the case for working things out together.  The concept is slightly clunkier than Goggle Eyes, basically a bunch of Year Seven students are due to go on a residential but there are too many children for the coach, so five are ‘picked randomly’ to go on a night early.  They are not friends and apparently have little in common.  The house where they are staying is spooky, it is dark, they get scared tra la la and once the teachers go to bed, they uncover a long forgotten-room where they find the lost diary of Richard Clayton Hardwick, the Victorian owner of the house.  

This is the plot device that could seem a little bit cheesy if as adults reading a children’s book we choose not to suspend our disbelief – I would argue that it works though.  Richard Clayton Hardwick loses his father as a child and instead gets a ghastly stepfather who is cruel to him until he runs away to sea, causing his mother and sister to basically die of grief.  It was a wise move for Anne Fine to set the most emotionally fraught story in the past – there is no doubt that there are still children who suffer from messy divorces but putting in the past is both reassuring while also acknowledging that these happen.  This sad little tale provokes discussion and it transpires that what all five children have in common is that they all put down a ‘second home address’.  Reconstituted families.  Rather than a Victorian tales of wicked stepmothers though, we have five tales for the modern age.  I first read it aged ten in my pre-step family days but rereading it now I can see it is absolute genius – it’s self-help in fictional form yet you barely notice.  

Firstly comes Claudia.  Out of loyalty to her mother, Claudia thought she was doing the right thing by ignoring and cutting out her new stepmother, but finally she realised after eavesdropping on a dinner party where all her father’s friends did the same, that by doing this not only was she not helping her mother or herself but more importantly she was just being rude.  And there’s no call for it.  I thought Claudia’s story was well placed because it is basically the first lesson you learn as part of a stepfamily – no matter what you may feel, you don’t want to go letting yourself down.  

Next came Colin’s sad story – after a no show father, he had had a wonderful Dad until abruptly he and his Mum ‘did a flit’.  Colin was saving all of his pocket money and birthday money so that he could one day go and search for his lost Dad who he had not seen for five years.  Colin’s bitterness is directed towards his mother who refuses to let him speak about his Dad and as the novel progresses, it is clear that Colin has little loyalty towards her – his family bond is for his Dad, he gets steadily more irritated when Ralph insists on referring to him as a stepfather and so through Colin we see how important and enduring the bonds of stepfamily love can be.  I think it is masterful how Anne Fine portrays Colin’s single-minded determination, it is so rare that children’s authors manage to give their characters true depth of feeling without it seeming clunky. 

Then comes Ralph’s ‘Tale of three Stepmothers’.  Ralph ticks off all the step-relations picked up from multiple remarriages (the father’s three to the mother’s one) and leaves out his own parents in the confusion but is completely unruffled.  He also tries to explain the labyrinthine workings of his custody agreement to general astonishment – Ralph is an old pro at stepfamilies, he’s done it all.  Ralph’s story is great because he is completely accepting of his parents’ flaws and notes that ‘none’ of his stepmothers have ever been wicked no matter how annoying they have been.  This is a story of a realistic reconstituted family – Ralph politely explains to Colin that ‘I don’t think that my Mum comes out of the same box as your Mum, you can say almost anything to my Mum’.  Indeed, Ralph’s mother is far from being bitter about her husband’s remarriages, she does however share part of the blame for stepmother #2’s departure because she was forever sneaking her youngest children’s clothes into her older children’s PE bags in the hopes that stepmother #2’s legendary laundering abilities would sort them out.  Ralph and his brothers delight when they get one over on stepmothers #1 & #2 while stepmother #3 has turned out to be a winner.  Although this has been a winding tale, nobody here is coming out of it scarred.

Pixie’s story deals with her own problems getting on with her stepsisters which boil over when she starts having to share a room with one.  She tries various different strategies to get her out and it culminates in a confrontation with her stepmother Lucy who tries being polite but then finally comes out with all of her own frustrations about her step role – this is a very important voice to hear.  Lucy angrily tells Pixie that no woman dreams of being a stepmother because you can never win, no matter what you do.  It is very easy for children to think that they are the only ones suffering, so it was a good idea to hear from both sides.  Pixie ends up wiser and compromise is achieved.

Finally, Robbo tells his sister Callie”s story, the two of them have a stepfather and younger half-brother ‘Dumpa’ who is the problem.  Callie cannot  get on with their stepfather no matter what either of them do, and having tried every which way to reunite her parents and or drive away her stepfather, Callie finally admits defeat and decides to move in with her father.  The story ends with Robbo commenting that at the end of the school residential, his sister will have moved out and that his mother is currently dragging his father around to buy things to make Callie’s new room more comfortable.  Still, when Robbo worries that his sister is doing the wrong thing like Richard Clayton Hardwick by abandoning the situation, Ralph (the stepfamily expert) scolds him, explaining that Callie is just trying a different way to solve the problem and that she is in fact being very brave.   I agree with this – it’s the old cliché, accept what you cannot change and change what you cannot accept and it is also a good idea to acknowledge that from time to time, people just can’t make it work and we have to get creative.  

What I really liked though was the final denouement, when Ralph realises that Colin plans to abandon his mother as soon as he is old enough, that Colin wants to go away and find his father and have nothing more to do with her.  Ralph reacts furiously, telling him that no matter what the adults in your life have done, somebody has to make the effort and do the right thing.  I always remember this passionate tirade – it is so true and such a good message for children; rather than being a bedraggled waif drawn by Nick Sharratt in the style of Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine’s children take ownership of their own fate through their own actions.  

So yes, I love this book – it gives children a voice in an issue that is all too often an adult problem.  People talk about ‘thinking of the children’ but they don’t or people assume that the issue is over when the divorce is finished – family is an ever-changing beast because we grow, we change, we mature and we see things differently.   Anne Fine allows her characters varied and complex emotional reactions to what has befallen them while still stating very firmly that you stand by your family no matter what they’ve done.  

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Step by Wicked Step by Anne Fine
Published by Penguin UK on July 5th 2001
Genres: Young Adult, Family, Stepfamilies, General
Pages: 144
ISBN: 9780141927916

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