Sir Michael Morpurgo interview: 'We must not talk down to children'

Published on: 27 March 2018 Author: Anna McKerrow

BookTrust's President Sir Michael Morpurgo is back with a beautiful new book.

Flamingo Boy tells the story of Lorenzo, a young boy who has autism and is living through the upheaval of World War Two.

We caught up with Michael to find out why he wanted to write about a character on the autistic spectrum, why it's so important that children have books about war, and what his favourite children's book is...

Win Flamingo Boy and other great Michael Morpurgo books

Flamingo Boy

What inspired you to write the main character of Flamingo Boy as a child with autism?

I have a grandson, Laurence, who has autism. I had never realised until he became part of our family what this really meant, or what it was. I have had many years now to witness his growing, to witness the devotion and love of his parents, and to get to know him more closely.

I had not thought of writing a book about him, partly because the subject had been so well written about before and partly because my understanding of autism was too shallow. But then, I went down to the South of France, to the Camargue region with Clare, my wife.

It's a wild and wonderful national park, where black bulls and white horses roam, and where pink flamingos fly. Whilst I was there, I thought then of an autistic boy growing up in a farmhouse in amongst these creatures, and how he might relate to them and they might relate to him.

I decided to set the story during the Second World War when France was an occupied country. Where children and people who were different were under threat whether they were gypsies or Jews or people who did not seem to be like other people, children with autism amongst them.

We love the theme of healing broken things that is so central to this story set in wartime; why is it so important for children to read books about war, do you think?

Thank you for saying so. I'm often asked this question about writing about war for children. I think it's because I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. I lived next to a bombsite, played in it because we weren't supposed to.

But I soon learned that much more than buildings was destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my young uncle Pieter, killed in 1940, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him and through the grief my mother lived every day of her life. It had a profound effect on me.

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.

Wars are still happening today and children see the effects of the suffering all around them, through their devices and through the people they know. Knowing the sensitivities of children, we have to be careful not to traumatise them, to approach it with hope at the centre of the story. But nonetheless, I think we have to talk straight about these issues and not talk down to children.

Horses feature again in this book, albeit carousel ones! Does this book have similarities to War Horse and Private Peaceful?

Flamingo Boy

In Flamingo Boy it is the white horses of the Camargue that roam free there that we were so struck by when we visited. My wife and daughter love horses but I've never had a particular connection with them or any other animal in particular.

But I am really interested in the relationship between animals and humans. I think they often bring out the best in us because they listen without passing judgement and accept us for who we are without prejudice. For some people, this can be the most important relationship – a loving and uncomplicated one – as it is for Albert and Joey in War Horse.

My fascination with animals also comes partly from my life. Running our charity Farms for City Children for so many years, we would have groups of children from inner cities coming to live and work on the farm for a week. They would become the farmers – feeding and caring for the animals. I think watching these children and how they interacted with the animals inspired many of my stories.

What other children's books set in wartime do you like?

Goodnight Mister Tom; War Game

There are many but two in particular are Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian - a beautifully written book about how war affects the lives of civilians, particularly children, sent away from home. And Michael Foreman's War Game, beautifully and sensitively illustrated, centres on the 1914 Christmas when German and British soldiers had a game of football in no man's land. You know by the end that it wasn't a war between people, it was a war between powers.

And what was your favourite book of any kind as a child?

It would have to be The Elephant's Child by Rudyard Kipling; it's the book my mother read to me and my brother Pieter over and over again because we asked for it all the time and because I loved to hear her voice reading it to me. Sitting there on the bed, she took us on a journey across the seas, to Africa, to the Great Grey Greasy Limpopo River, all hung about with fever trees.

Flamingo Boy by Michael Morpurgo is out now, published by Harper Collins Children's Books.

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