Michael Morpurgo is the most popular UK children’s author after J K Rowling, and arguably isn’t in need of any extra exposure in this blog. Like Geraldine McCaughrean, he is both prolific and prize-winning, and The Book People, Red House and their like regularly offer generous Michael Morpurgo packs with or without the title for which he’s now best known, War Horse.
To suggest that there’s a Michael Morpurgo problem is to invite the wrath of the bookshop and library gods. Since the bookshop and library gods are probably looking elsewhere at the moment, I’ll risk it: I think there is a Michael Morpurgo problem, the problem of being such a byword for quality writing for younger readers that people buy your books and press them on children indiscriminately, regardless of age and readiness. Sometimes, the package doesn’t altogether help: The Mozart Question is beautifully produced, with sensitive illustrations by Michael Foreman, and is a sweetly haunting story set in Venice. However, it does look like a picture book for quite young children, who might well be bewildered by the references – not only the musical references, which are fairly central given that the main character is a world-famous violinist, but also the historical background: the violinist is the child of Holocaust survivors once compelled to play in concentration camp orchestras. It’s a story that’s well worth reading at the right stage – but the right stage is probably 9+, and I do wonder whether the (undeniably appealing) picture-gift-book format quite conveys that.
I want children to read Morpurgo at the right stage – and grown-ups to read him at any stage – because he can be such an extraordinary writer. Most children’s authors would be more than content to have produced one book in their lifetime as good as The Butterfly Lion, War Horse, Kensuke’s Kingdom, Private Peaceful or Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea. What a shame, what a waste, to push such a brilliant author too soon, and have children not “get” him, and be put off ever after. (This, by the way, is one of the most powerful arguments against printing reading ages on children’s books. As a parent, of course I see the appeal of a label that will tell me at once whether a book is right for my child, like the age labels which tell me whether their new clothes will fit. Realistically, however, my children are tall and skinny, so I buy trousers too “old” for my son, so that they’ll be long enough, and skirts too “young” for my daughter, so that they stand a chance of finding her waist. Think of the ambitious parent whose child is reading “far above” their actual age, and buys books accordingly – there are many more than you’d imagine; no-one readily admits that their child is average or below average. Will that child be ready, say, for the First World War carnage of War Horse at 7? Or the moral questions of Private Peaceful at 8? Conversely, could a 9-year-old be seen dead with a book conspicuously labelled 7+, no matter how much they’d enjoy it without the demeaning tag?)
Morpurgo himself writes beautifully about his writing in Singing for Mrs Pettigrew, a collection of short stories interleaved with personal memories and reflections. In it, he says that when he begins to work on a novel, “I do not consider whether my story might be suitable for a child, or even whether a child reader might like it. The only consideration is whether the story interests me sufficiently… After all… I am, I know, a grown-up child.” It’s up to publishers to present Morpurgo’s books as younger or older, shorter or longer, with large widely-spaced type and plenty of illustrations or otherwise. The dividend is a range of compelling stories that can just as well be short and accessible without being pedestrian or patronising: the best of them have a wonder and lyricism that is all too rare in books for beginner readers. More than perhaps any other children’s writer, Morpurgo has a way of picking up a tiny fragment of history or local legend – the bypassed, the unregarded, the misrepresented – and honing and polishing and working it into something magnificent, with both life and heart.
The White Horse of Zennor was one of Morpurgo’s earliest books and remains a favourite and a pretty good case of the dividend I mention, in that my elder daughter read it happily (and far more enduringly) alongside Rainbow Magic Fairies when only just embarking on chapter books. Its five linked stories are set in the far west of Cornwall, a place that Morpurgo holds in special affection (three more terrific books are set in the Scilly Isles: The Wreck of the Zanzibar, Why the Whales Came and The Sleeping Sword) and of which he can evoke the otherworldliness and wild beauty without overlooking the precariousness of farming and fishing and old-time tin-mining, the stubbornness and suspicion within families and communities and the rare and terrible fury of the sea. They’re wonderfully evocative, sad, magical and finally uplifting stories, a marvellous tribute to place.
In the same year as The White Horse of Zennor, Morpurgo published what has become his best-known book. Thousands of discerning readers recognised the magic of War Horse straight away, although it would be another twenty years before the seemingly impossible process began of adapting the book for the stage, and almost another decade before the global accolade of a Spielberg film adaptation. Perhaps surprisingly, War Horse and the later Private Peaceful owed much to a very peaceful Devon village where Morpurgo has lived for many years, and where in his other day job he runs Farms for City Children; those farms include Wick Court, beloved of our own Y6s. Three octogenarians in the village had not only seen service in the First World War, but vividly recalled the Army buying up farm horses for duty at the Front. The detail of history, the little-known local story becomes something truly remarkable and moving, as Joey the plough horse, officer’s mount, ambulance horse, gun-carriage horse is transported from the Devon countryside to the mud and butchery of the battlefield, appropriated by English, French and Germans in turn, finding comradeship and terror, sickness and exhaustion and unlikely survival in the midst of it all.
Morpurgo is often asked why he writes so much about war (Friend or Foe, War Horse, Waiting for Anya, Private Peaceful, The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips and most recently A Medal for Leroy, as well as the chilling What Does it Feel Like? and desolate Half a Man in Singing for Mrs Pettigrew). His usual answer is along the lines that he was shaped by war, growing up in London in the Fifties with rationing and the bomb sites which became fantastical playgrounds, but also knowing at first hand of the missing and mourned, and the returned but horribly wounded: “I write about what I know, what I care about”. However, he also has a unique eye for the essence of humanity in war, the unexpected and astonishing, the worst and the best, the bullies and comrades, unthinking martinets with power and philosophical rebels without it. Private Peaceful is one of Morpurgo’s outstanding books, bleaker by far than War Horse, but for me all the deeper and better for it. It’s a shame that the autumn 2012 film version didn’t get a wider release – worth looking out for.
For brothers Charlie and Tommo Peaceful, there’s nothing idyllic about their peacetime life: their father is killed in a forestry accident (for which Tommo blames himself), their elder brother Big Joe is despised as a “lunatic”, and in their tied cottage, the fatherless family have no choice but to work as and when they may for their ghastly, hypocritical landlord, the Colonel. Outspoken Charlie acquires a reputation as a troublemaker – yet another blackmail-hold for the landlord as recruitment begins in earnest for the First World War – and the two devoted brothers find themselves falling hopelessly for the same local girl. Now, over one long night, Tommo relives the years of strong family bonds and petty bullying that brought the brothers to the point of signing up together, to the horror of the Somme and to Charlie’s fate. Set against the terrible inevitability is an outstanding story: compelling and unaffected in Tommo’s voice, vivid and lyrical with a deep and enduring love. Please don’t give it to a seven-year-old – but do read it and you’ll understand why not, and when to try again, and why it is worth the wait.
Don’t give Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea to a seven-year-old either, but do enjoy it as an absorbing two-part family chronicle of aloneness, fear and homecoming. Arthur Hobhouse is one of thousands of British orphans and children in care who were shipped out to Australia in the 1950s, separated from his sister Kitty with nothing more than a keepsake key. For his daughter Allie, he sets down the story of his life: the tyranny of an outback settlement under the brutal fanatic “Piggy” Bacon, the gradual rebellion with the complicity of Piggy’s browbeaten wife Ida, the desperate and near-fatal escape, the bushmen who bring Arthur and his friend to their saviour Megs and her idyllic Ark of half-tamed animals. Like a mother bird, Megs gently pushes her two human fledgelings out of the nest when the time is right; Arthur and Marty come to Sydney and learn to be boatbuilders and sailors, and Arthur conceives the plan of building a boat to go back to England and search for his long-lost sister. Not that the plan goes according to: in the end it is Arthur’s daughter Allie who sets sail, decades later, alone, keeping in touch with her family through a succession of emails. Allie is a character it’s impossible not to like, what with her cheerful practicality, her delight in the ocean’s wonders and her bravery through its vicious storms. Arthur’s journey and Allie’s, so different in style and purpose, balance each other beautifully and bring about a heartwarming resolution.
Sailing provides the framing for another of Morpurgo’s outstanding books. Y5 need no introduction to Kensuke’s Kingdom, in which Michael’s father spends his redundancy pay on an ocean-going yacht and the family and their dog Stella (Artois) embark on a round-the-world voyage. Michael is thrilled by the adventure, but also clear-eyed as to the realities: too little space, constant damp, a steady diet of baked beans and his mum’s insistence that he keep up with school work. Still, he plays football in Brazil, sees elephants in South Africa and explores Australia with a distant uncle. And then one night, when Michael is on watch, he makes a terrible mistake and is swept overboard along with Stella. His last memory is of being pulled out of the water… He comes to on a deserted beach on a jungle island. For a day he searches for food and water, and thinks he must be the only human there… but the next day, someone has left a bowl of water for Stella, and dried fish and red bananas for Michael. Gradually, warily and through one misunderstanding after another, Michael comes to know the remarkable Kensuke: doctor, artist, one-time husband and father, a resourceful survivor determined to stay on undisturbed in his kingdom, although Michael pines for his family. It’s a riveting human drama, and also a magnificent description of the tiny island – hostile and frightening at first with its shrieking forest and apparent lack of food and water, then gradually becoming a place of wonder, orang-utans and hatchling turtles, as Kensuke teaches Michael to understand it.
Morpurgo’s own website, http://michaelmorpurgo.com, gives a guide to book levels (although I note, aargh, The Mozart Question is in with the picture books as though for pre-readers! and I do not agree that Kensuke’s Kingdom is an older read than Private Peaceful) and the full range of his books, with some nice bells and whistles such as pdf and audio extracts to download. I note that the competition for “The nation’s favourite Morpurgo” is now closed – so at least that’s one difficult decision I won’t have to make.