Michael Morpurgo on dark themes in children's literature
Award-winning children’s writer Michael Morpurgo is a King's English & French alumnus and was the third Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005. Since 1974 he has written over 120 books for children, including War Horse and Private Peaceful.
The subject of war and its consequences is present in many of Michael Morpurgo’s stories. In a recent talk at the King’s Arts & Humanities Festival 2012 he spoke about his belief that children’s writers should not be afraid to tackle pain and suffering, as well as joy. In this exclusive interview, Michael discusses the relevance of war for today’s children and how his time at King’s revived his passion for story-telling.
1. What inspired you to get into writing? Why do you write for children? And why do you so often focus on the theme of war?
It was whilst I was teaching many years ago that I found that the only way to keep the attention of my year six class was to read to them. But often they wouldn’t be interested in what I was reading and would be distracted and stare out of the window. So I started to tell them my own stories and they seemed to like it. I think it was this experience of teaching and of running the charity Farms for City Children with my wife Clare that has helped make me a children’s writer. The subject of war in my books perhaps has something to do with 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. My parents had split up because of it, and I knew that my uncle Pieter had been killed in 1940 in the RAF. I saw the grief that my mother, his sister, felt every day of her life. I missed him and I’d never even known him. War continues to divide people, to change them forever, and I write about it because I want people to understand the absolute futility of war; the ‘pity of war’ as Wilfred Owen called it.
2. How did your time at King’s affect your writing career?
It was at King's that I fell in love with literature and stories all over again. The first time was when my mother would read to me at bedtime. I loved the music in her words as she read the stories of Kipling and the poetry of Browning and Walter de la Mare amongst many others. She was an actress so could really bring these stories to life for me and my brother. But then there was a period between childhood and university where I wasn’t a great reader or writer. At King's my love of stories and storytelling was rekindled through the magic of the ancient stories such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These old tales have stood the test of time, thousands of years sometimes. Each time I read them even now, it reminds me how the best of storytelling should be, and I find that truly inspirational, and instructive too.
3. As you discussed in your recent talk at the King’s Arts & Humanities Festival 2012: Why do you think it's important not to shy away from the concepts of pain and suffering in children’s literature? In your opinion, which other modern authors do this well?
I can only really speak for myself, but I have always felt that it is how the truth is dealt with in literature that counts. Knowing the sensitivities of children, we have to be careful not to traumatise them when writing about or telling them about such dreadful events as war and the consequences of war. But nonetheless, I think we have to talk straight about these issues and look children in the eye. We have to be honest, but if possible very aware of how young people might respond. There are other modern writers that I admire who never talk down to children in their writing. Philip Pullman is one that I admire hugely.
4. How has the child audience changed since you first started writing? War is a theme of many of your books: why do you think that today’s children can still relate to that time and the events that took place?
I don’t think my child audience has changed since I started writing. Certainly there are more adults reading my books than did ten or five years ago because of books such as War Horse and Private Peaceful. But I don’t really have an audience in mind when I write. I write for me and because I feel something passionately and intensely. With my book Shadow, for example, I was inspired to write about a contemporary conflict. But writing about a war that’s still going on, it’s even more difficult to keep the story centre stage rather than issues of the war. I am conscious of the fact that there are families of soldiers who are fighting in the war and dying in it. So there is a sensitivity that is raw and I have to be very careful about that. I have often written about wars that have taken place long ago and the problem with that is that it makes it seem, because of the distance of time, rather irrelevant to younger readers, whereas with present conflicts, there is no question of it being irrelevant. It is now and it is happening.
5. You’ve written so powerfully about the First World War, a war that was fought for reasons that don’t make much sense. Nearly a century on, when you look at all the wars taking place around the world, do you think humankind has learned any lessons about the horrors of war?
Sadly, I don’t think they have. Wars still go on despite all that humanity has suffered and learnt.
6. When you meet parents who have read your books to, or with, their children, what do they usually say about how their children reacted to the more challenging subject matter?
They often tell me that they are surprised by how children can manage to deal with difficult subjects. For example, I watch the reaction of the audience when I go to see the National Theatre’s amazing production of War Horse. Very often, it is the adults who are most moved by what they have seen.
7. Has the magic of storytelling been lost on children in this digital age? Do you think that it is more difficult now to inspire a love of reading in children?
Not at all. Children and adults still love stories and books and being read to, there is just more choice these days. Whether you read a book or read a story on a Kindle or iPad, it’s all the same really. It’s still the story at the heart of it that captures the imagination.
8. Do you have any advice on a career in writing for our recently graduated alumni?
The main thing is to write because you mean it, and because you feel something passionately. The other thing is never to give up if you really believe it is what you want to do.
9. What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
It was when Ted Hughes told me I would write a better book after War Horse didn’t win the Whitbread Award. He said to me, “You’ve written a fine book Michael but you’ll write a finer one.” I’ve never forgotten that.
10. What do you think are the most important qualities needed to be a writer?
The most important thing is to live an interesting life. Keep your eyes, ears and heart open. Talk to people and visit interesting places, and don’t forget to ask questions. To be a writer you need to drink in the world around you so it’s always there in your head.
11. Who or what do you remember most from your time at King’s?
I remember the long trek in on the tube, my AKC lectures in the hall on a Monday morning, everyone as sleepy as I was. The dust and noise - there was permanent rebuilding going on whilst I was there. So you lot all benefited from that disruption! Struggling to understand my philosophy lectures. Being read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and loving it. Walking back down the Strand after lectures were over, loving the limbo time between college and home.
Michael Morpurgo’s latest book, A Medal for Leroy, is out now (£12.99, Harper Collins Children’s Books).