Devon Radio Presenter Judi Spiers Interviews Author and Former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo

PUBLISHED: 21:46 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 09:52 20 February 2013

Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo

Retaining the Inner Child<br/><br/><br/><br/>Author Michael Morpurgo can really get inside children's heads. Judi finds out how his own childhood experiences have informed his writing.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>I didn't read much as a child. True,...

November 2006

Retaining the Inner Child

Author Michael Morpurgo can really get inside children's heads. Judi finds out how his own childhood experiences have informed his writing.

I didn't read much as a child. True, I was the 'librarian' for a few hours a week at primary school, but it wasn't the books that attracted me; it was the blue and gold badge that said'LIBRARIAN', just in case anyone wandered into the six-foot by four-foot room and couldn't work out who I was. The shelves seemed to be full of stories about naughty girls at boarding school and lashings and lashings of something or other for tea. Everyone was having jolly good adventures in boats and woods, or looking after goats in the Austrian mountains with kindly grandfathers. It all seemed a far cry from my life at Hyde Park Primary School in Plymouth. I wish I'd had Michael Morpurgo's books then.

Michael Morpurgo was Children's Laureate from 2003 until 2005, and in June this year was awarded an OBE for services to literature. Author of more than 100 books, including Kensuke's Kingdom, The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, Dolphin Boy and Private Peaceful - the winner of the 2005 Blue Peter Award - Michael manages to tackle love and death and war and brutality in a way that children see and understand. You never get the feeling that he's trying to 'teach' children a lesson. The issues are woven into superb plots, or the plots are woven around issues - I'm not sure which, it's all so seamless. The language is exciting; his characters giggle at words that amuse them and so do you. As someone who has suffered over many hearty but stilted conversations with youngsters, it amazes me that he can get inside their heads so well. He told me how he does it when we met up recently to talk about his latest book, Alone on a Wide Wide Sea.

"I've been a father, a grandfather, a teacher, and what I have learnt in all that time is what you do with children is to talk to them about things you care about and use your own voice. What you don't do is patronise them, or talk down to them or pretend they're stupid. Or pretend even they don't know very much. Actually they know an awful lot. And these days because they see so much and hear so much they know an enormous amount more than I ever did when I was young. I reckon a child of 10 today knows

as much about life - 'the big L' - as I did when I was 20, because it comes into their sitting room and they want to know about it. Books can help enormously there."

Alone on a Wide Wide Sea tells the story of young Arthur Hobhouse who is shipped to Australia as an orphan after the Second World War. All he remembers of England is a sad grey day leaving Liverpool docks with nothing but a key from his sister. He doesn't know what or where it's for but it's his and it means a lot. The years in Australia test his spirit to the limits. He's abused, neglected, malnourished and starved of love by a bullying, Bible-punching farmer in the Outback. The sea becomes one of his great loves when he goes to work in a Sydney boatyard. He meets a nurse, marries and has a daughter who picks up the torch of his life and does what he's always wanted to do, which is come back to England and find his long-lost sister.

War has played a big part in several of Michael's books and I wondered why?

"I'm not doing it for children's books," he explained. "I'm doing it because it's very much a part of me. I was born in 1943, so my first memories are absolutely of what the war had done to London and the buildings around me. But I didn't really know or understand until I suppose I got to five or six and began to take notice of what adults were saying about this trauma they were living through and what it had done to them. There was this loss and this grief that they were living through. And I suppose those things never leave you, the things you learn when you're very, very young, that touch you so much. War really gets under the skin, and so I think it's important to write about it. So I'm not writing about it to explain it to children, I'm trying to explore it myself."

Michael recently presented, on Radio 4, a unique and groundbreaking history of the experiences of children in Britain over the last 1,000 years, and he says that while it's granted that we've eradicated many childhood diseases and we no longer exploit children in the workplace, we still haven't got it right.

"You can see that there are corrosive effects in childhood which weren't there before. They're being marketed at too strongly from a very early age. They target kids of three with a little doll or whatever it is beaming at them, and it goes on into their teenage years. It's the mobile phone, it's the trainers, etc, and that's pretty corrosive stuff, I think.

"We're bringing them up like mini-adults instead of giving them time and space to dream and just to be children. And they get it when they go to school. They're tested and tested and it's all targets, targets. And instead of people going on about 'education, education', we should be thinking 'childhood, childhood'. One should serve the other and not the other way round."

Michael is a big believer in what he calls 'dreamtime' and admits he's still a child inside.

"The best of what we have in us as adults is the child that's there, the thing that keeps us fresh and interested. And that's exactly how we've got to remain, with our ears and eyes open. If you retain that from your childhood then I think you become a worthwhile person."

Whatever age you are, give yourself a treat - read a little Michael Morpurgo.

Alone on a Wide Wide Sea is published by HarperCollins, ISBN 0-00-723056-7, at 12.99.

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