The author of War Horse and Private Peaceful, Michael Morpurgo talks to Lydia Gard about iPads, his first love and the ‘pity of war’.
Why is fiction so important for children’s development?
Fiction is a gateway to reading; the need to turn the page, to find out what happens next and what will happen at the end. Reading compels you to enter into a relationship with the story and the characters, to feel what they feel, to think new thoughts, to empathise. And reading helps young people make sense of a complicated world. As you read you become someone else, through the process of the imagination, so when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
What do you hope children gain from reading your books?
What can any writer hope children gain from reading? I hope they become involved with the story and enter into the dreamtime of the story, whether through the characters or sense of place. I hope the story takes them on a journey as it did me to write it.
Do you have a kindle or prefer to turn the pages of a book?
I don’t have a kindle but my wife and I both have ipads, and I am happy to read books on the iPad. I think both paper books and electronic books can exist side by side.
Modern parenting leans towards protecting children from certain truths, but by writing about the war you are exposing them to the harsh realities. Why is that important to you?
It’s not so much that it’s important to me to expose my readers to the harsh realities of war. I can only write about what I know. For me personally, the fascination with war comes from the fact that I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. We lived next to a bombsite and my brother and our friends played in it because we weren’t supposed to, and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable. But I soon learned that much more than buildings was destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my uncle Pieter, killed in 1940, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him, through the grief my mother, his sister, lived every day of her life. I missed him and I’d never known him. All I knew was what I’d been told, that he’d given his life for our freedom. I thought the world of him for that. I still do.
War continues to divide people, to change them forever, and I write about it both because I want people to understand the absolute futility of war, the ‘pity of war’ as Wilfred Owen called it. Also, there can be few children who aren’t aware of what is happening around them, what they see on the television news everyday and hear about on the radio. We can’t pretend to children that it’s not happening.
Did you enjoy school?
My first school was the St Matthias Primary on the Warwick Road in London. It was one of those old brick schools, which look a bit like a prison or a hospital, with windows so high that you couldn’t see out of them but just catch glimpses of blue sky. I hated school. I wasn’t a very dazzling pupil and often made mistakes, which meant standing in the corner or being thwacked across the knuckles with a ruler. Books and stories became rather terrifying things, as the teacher was only interested in correct spelling and neat handwriting without any blotches. There was one good thing about school though, my first love, the brainy Belinda who I shared a desk with and whose work I tried to copy.
What is your most poignant memory of your years as a teacher?
It would have to be moment that really turned me into a writer. It was whilst I was a teacher at a school in Kent. At the end of the day we used to read to the children in class. I could see that the story I was reading my Year 6’s was really boring them – they were sitting staring out the window and falling asleep. I went home that night and my wife suggested that I tell them one of my own stories that I used to make up for my own children at bedtime. So I went in the next day and started to tell them my story. Slowly they started to listen and then intently on the edge of their seats, and by the time the bell went for the end of school, I had them in the palm of my hand. It was a great feeling and I have never looked back.
Single sex or co-ed?
I think it really depends on the child.
Do you read to your grandchildren?
Yes, I do like to read to them and certainly did a lot when my oldest grandchildren were younger. Some of my grandchildren live far away and I am often away travelling and taking part in speaking engagements or tours for my books, so it isn’t always easy but it is something I love to do.
If you had an evening alone, would you read, write or do something entirely different?
I would probably watch television or a film. I tend to write in the morning when I am feeling a bit fresher.
Michael Morpurgo’s favourite books for children
1. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
A picture book I adored, and one of the first books I ever read for myself. It helped that the hero and I shared the same name. Wonderfully illustrated, it had the most satisfactory of all endings.
2. The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde
This was the first story, I think, that ever made me cry. What was strange was that I wanted to read it over and over again. It still has the power to make me cry.
3. The Elephant’s Child from The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
The story my mother used to read me most often, because I asked for it again and again. I loved the sheer fun of it, the music and the rhythm of the words. It was subversive too. Still my favourite story, and this was part of the inspiration for my recent novel Running Wild which is also about an elephant.
4. Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson
I was not an avid reader at all. I liked comics and being read to, and listening to stories. This was the first real book I read for myself. Jim Hawkins was the first character I identified with totally. I lived this book as I read it.
5. The Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear
I loved the eccentric drawings, the wonderfully clever rhymes, and head-nodding beat of the limericks. The old man with birds nesting in his beard was my grandfather. No question.
6. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
I found the dense print on hundreds of pages too difficult to cope with as I think some boys do too. I took to reading the great classics in comic form.