Michael Morpurgo tends to use the phrase “rattling good yarn” quite a bit. The acclaimed children’s author has written more than 100 books across five decades but has never lost sight of what is most important to his young readers — the story.
Morpurgo has written more than 100 books and along with his novels, and is also renowned for his retellings of myths, legends and fables. For him, these stories contain all the necessary ingredients to bewitch young readers.
“Those are the ones that cut to the chase because they talk of fear and evil, good and hope. These things are so important to children growing up but are often not addressed because people get worried and think, ‘We mustn’t go there’.
“Take Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, it’s a horrible story in all sorts of ways. But it shows a child being brave, facing consequences, and learning that things are not always as they seem.”
Morpurgo has recently worked on a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk for Oxford University Press. “It made me realise again that this really is the story of a child’s courage in facing overwhelming odds and managing to get away with it. I love that. It is really hard to make stories like that in a modern setting without upsetting this person or that person.”
While there is concern over declining literacy among children, partly due to the abundance of technological devices and also the quality of some of the writing on offer, Morpurgo, who was a teacher before becoming a full-time writer, says the most important thing is to get children reading in the first place.
“My great passion as a teacher and a writer is that they should first learn to love stories or the sound of words. That comes from rattling good yarns but most importantly it comes from the people who pass on those yarns. It’s the parent, carer or teacher who enthuses the child in the first place. You just hope that it catches fire and that in ten years, that child will be reading Jane Austen or James Joyce or whatever.
“I don’t really care about literature — I’d rather they read anything, even if it is superficial. The government here [in Britain] recommends certain ‘good’ books but by stamping that kind of recommendation on it, you put so many people off. They must find their own way.”
The 73-year-old says he found his own way into books through a similar route. “I wasn’t a very good reader — I loved pictures and stories. Back in the 1950s, there were these books called ‘classics illustrated’. They were basically comic books which told the story of the great classics. I read Moby Dick, David Copperfield, Les Miserables in this form because I was frightened by lots of words on the page and the very thick books.”
However, it was one of the greatest purveyors of ‘rattling good yarns’ who really set the young Morpurgo’s imagination on fire. “I was given a book by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was the first author who took me to a different place. Take Treasure Island — I was Jim hiding in a barrel of apples and I was terrified; the mutineers were outside and would cut my throat if they caught me.
"I really lived that story as I read it, that was the first time that had ever happened. He is still my writing hero. He could do so much — he could write poetry, travel books, yarns for children, novels for grown-up children. I loved the breadth of what he did.”
Another source of inspiration for Morpurgo was the late poet Ted Hughes; they lived near each other in Devon and he became a mentor.
“Stevenson and Hughes between them were a big inspiration — I wanted to be a sort of fusion of the two, which I failed to do,” he laughs. “One was a genius of a story maker and the other had this extraordinary command of the rhythm and music of language, and its power, which I was fascinated by.
“It was lovely to be around Ted, and to exchange manuscripts with him. He was wonderful in encouraging younger writers. He was also not at all snobbish about writing for children, he did it himself rather well and it irritated him intensely that there are those in the writing establishment in this country who belittled children’s literature.”
Morpurgo also encountered another famous poet in Devon — the late Seamus Heaney, who later escorted him on a literary tour of Dublin.
“Seamus and Marie [Heaney’s wife] used to come over here to Ted’s house, and they also stayed here with us. Seamus was a sweet and kind man. I was in Dublin for a writer’s festival not long before he died and Seamus kindly said he would take us on a literary tour. We visited all these sites related to writers such as Yeats and Joyce.
"He tried to take us to Phoenix Park and the gates were closed for an event. There was a garda there and Seamus wound down his window and said ‘I’ve got some friends with me and I’d like to come in’. The garda said: ‘Jaysus, Seamus the last time I saw you, you were doing such-and-such’. I thought ‘What kind of bobby would look into a car and recognise an English poet in London?’ That could only happen in Ireland. It showed how much Irish people value literature.”
One of Morpurgo’s best-known works is War Horse, which reached a whole new audience in a hugely successful stage adaptation, and subsequent film. Why does Morpurgo think the story, which is set in the First World War, connected so much with people?
“When I first heard the National Theatre was going to do it, I thought the idea of telling the story of the First World War with puppet horses was absurd. It turned out to be a work of remarkable genius. That is because the National Theatre brought in such extraordinary people from all the disciplines of theatre.
"It resonated much more than when the book first came out, in 1982. I think everyone thought why would children be interested in an old war, and maybe it was a bit sentimental.
“I know that when it failed to win the Whitbread Prize, Roald Dahl, who was chairman of the judges, said children don’t like history, which I don’t think is true but I think he didn’t particularly care for the book. So it had a very dodgy start. It was only when the National Theatre got hold of it and transformed it into a story for everyone, that it seemed to work.”
Does Morpurgo think stories can help children navigate their worries about the current unsettled global political climate?
“It’s as scary as I’ve ever known it. It’s hard because when you tell stories, you have to reflect that anxiety, the world as it is. What you cannot do is make a fairytale of the world forever. Of course, when children are very young, those are the stories you need to tell so they can sleep at night. But there is no way any parent can protect children now from the realities of the world.
"It is beamed, not just into their sitting rooms, through the radio, as it was when I was young but into their bedrooms through their smart this and their smart that. They do see cities decimated in Syria and children carried bleeding into hospitals. One has to tell stories that do not traumatise but deal with sadness, and to some extent, cruelty — and indeed, the opposite of cruelty.”
Morpurgo will be at the Towers and Tales festival in Lismore, Co Waterford, at the end of this month to discuss his most recent novel, Listen to the Moon, which is inspired by the sinking of the Lusitania. While he says he enjoys meeting his readers at book events and festivals, there is one caveat.
“Festivals aren’t much fun when people come along just because they want a book signed. The best thing is when kids come along who have immersed themselves in the books and they just want to ask you where the story came from. It becomes an exchange, all provoked by literature.
“That is when it becomes valuable — to them, I hope, but certainly to me. It makes me think. It is difficult when you are the wrong side of 70 to go on remaining in touch with the children of today. It is getting worse because the obsessions children have today are very much to do with technology and are way outside my remit.
“But the one thing about books is they can do away with all this electronic and technological noise and reestablish the links between old and young. The biggest reward for me is when I read or tell a story to a bunch of people — it can be 12 or 1,200 — and there is silence. It means we are all, in our own way, linked in to the tale being told. That is the great moment for me — the silence that literature brings.”
- Michael Morpurgo will be at Towers and Tales festival in Lismore at 1pm on Saturday, April 29. The event is sold out. www.towersandtales.ie
Morpurgo’s Marvels: Top five reads
A powerful and poignant tale that has captured the imagination of generations of young readers and been adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg. Spirited foal Joey is deployed to WWI. His courage inspires his comrades but he longs to return to owner Albert.
Michael is marooned on an island in the Pacific after falling overboard from his parent’s yacht. When he is stung by a poisonous jelly fish, he becomes friends with the mysterious Kensuke, an elderly man who helps him to survive.
The tale of a puppy rescued from a canal and the adventures that follow. Best Mate’s courage and spirit sees him through many scrapes but all he wants is a real home.
A young Private takes comfort in memories of his family back in England as he does night watch duty in the battlefields of the First World War.
The Butterfly Lion
A lonely little boy in South Africa adopts an orphaned white lion cub, who becomes his best friend.
Towers and Tales highlights
There will also be a host of free events at the Festival Hub in Lismore Castle courtyard on Saturday, April 29, from 11am-5pm, including a book swap in the mobile library.
There will be a comic book-making workshop in association with the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, where participants can create their own stories and try different art-making techniques from collage and printmaking to illustration and paper-weaving. Other events in Lismore include:
- Character workshop with Niamh Sharkey (creator of Henry Hugglemonster)
- Lauren Child talks about Charlie & Lola, Clarice Bean and Ruby Redfort
- PJ Lynch and Ryan Tubridy discuss their picturebook collaboration, Patrick and the President
- Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan host a slam poetry workshop