DId you know, that February 2019 has been designated Michael Morpurgo month by Harper Collins? Did you also know that he visited Sri Lanka and conducted a programme for children at the British Council as part of the Galle Literary Festival about 10 years ago?
Michael Morpurgo is one of my favourite authors of children's books. He was born in 1943 towards the end of the Second World War. In his bio, he says he was evacuated to Northumberland to escape the bombing of London. His mother fell in love with another man while his biological father was away at the war, and that lead to divorce when he was still quite young. He also says he hated being away at boarding school. After trying out a stint in the army and realising it was not for him, Morpurgo found his vocation as a teacher. He says he ran out of other writer's stories to read in his classroom, and that prompted him to write his own. Finally, he and his wife Clare set up a venture called Farms for City Children through which children could have a break from hectic city life and learn to love nature in the countryside. All this is reflected in his poignant, and sometimes heartbreaking, work. His writing has a lovely sense of humour that is witty but not crude (unlike many modern writers for children). He explores many themes related to childhood, adolescence, society and growing up in his books which have been in the bestseller lists for decades.
As a teacher, I use many of his publications with my students and I unhesitatingly recommend him as one of the foremost writers of our time. As a writer, I have been told some of my own books reflect his tone, which is no surprise since he is definitely a big inspiration!
Although it is difficult to pick a handful from a list of over 130 publications, here are a few of his books that I have enjoyed with my students.
The book is suitable for young readers (age 6 - 8) to tackle on their own. However, my younger son enjoyed listening to the stories being read out. The text is interspersed with quirky black and white drawings, that adds a lot of humour and variety to the tale. There are six stories in this collection, all set in a farmyard. You see how the other animals help the farm cat fulfil his duties as a mouser, how Martians land in the cornfield, why the goat is suddenly eating everything in sight, what happens when a pig tries to fly and what happens when the sheepdog is not always sensible.
If you are looking for something to engage your child, that is not too heavy on text, that will inculcate in him a love for reading - then this is definitely worth trying!
Kaspar Prince of Cats
Michael Morpurgo is famous for incorporating historical events into his stories, and for giving a prominent position to animals. One would assume that these animal stories are written for younger readers, but that is not so. He describes the lives and fates of various animals in many different situations, and quite often in settings which are ideal for more mature readers.
This book is suitable for children age 9 - 12 and follows the adventures of a young bell boy in a famous hotel, named Johnny Trott. He befriends the famous Countess Kandinsky, who brings with her a regal cat in a basket. He later adopts her cat, befriends an American heiress, and finds himself aboard the Titanic... I will leave it at that so as to not spoil the ending!
Born to Run
Morpurgo deals with sensitive issues relating to animal welfare through his books. His ideas challenge children to open their eyes and hearts to animals who have no voice of their own. They learn to empathise and analyse social situations. This book too is suitable for the 9 - 12 age group.
The story is about a greyhound initially named Best Mate, who is rescued by a young boy after being thrown into a canal in a sack. Then he is stolen and trained to run, and he becomes a champion race dog. Then he has to survive living rough in the streets. He finds himself in harrowing situations and the reader is left to wonder the injustice of mankind towards such creatures. This book can be a sad read since the dog changes owners many times. However, it is written at just the correct level to prompt youngsters to understand the world we live in, without losing hope. It also encourages each one to try to the best of one's ability to make the world a better place.
War is a recurring theme in Morpurgo's books (Private Peaceful, Medal for Leroy, Butterfly Lion, Only Remembered, Elephant in the Garden, to name a few). When I came across War Horse, I was immediately reminded of the children's classic Black Beauty, which takes you through the life of a Victorian carriage/cab horse.
This book describes the life of a horse, named Joey, who is taken to the Western Front during World War 1. With his officer, he charges toward the enemy, witnessing the horror of the battles in France. But even in the desolation of the trenches, Joey's courage touches the soldiers around him and he is able to find warmth and hope. The narrative is from the point of view of the animal, which helps the reader empathise with the heartbreaking situations described. It is also an effective introduction through a story to a time in history that must not be forgotten by the newer generations. Reading it in this manner brings the message home and keeps it in one's mind and heart - an effective way of teaching history, among other things. This is suitable for readers 12+
King of the Cloud Forests
Not all Morpurgo's books are set in the West. This one is set in China and enters the realm of fantasy too since the protagonist Ashley meets the Yeti! Set in the time when Japan invaded China, the story follows the life of young Ashley who has lived in China all his young life. To escape the horror of war, he and Uncle Sung travel over the Himalayas to try and reach the safety of England. The best part is definitely the Yeti! The story is fast paced and will leave you wanting more. This book delves more into fantasy than Morpurgo's usual writing, but it is still enthralling, and cements the accolade 'Master Storyteller'.
This is suitable for readers 10+
Morpurgo has also retold many famous classics and fairy tales, such as tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur. His work has also been adapted into numerous stage and screen performances. So if you are ever in the UK or US, and a performance is on, make sure to watch it!
His books are available at all leading bookstores in Sri Lanka.