A Story is a two way thing - Michael Foreman on his new book Stubby, the importance of sharing stories and his love for true tales

Published on: 03 October 2018 Author: Robbie Hunt

Award winning author and illustrator Michael Foreman is back with another future classic, Stubby, about a war hero dog from the First World War. See our interview to find out all about, his childhood during World War Two and his long-running relationship with Michael Morpurgo. 

When did you first hear the story of the war hero dog Stubby?

Well Stubby was suggested to me by my editor at Anderson Press Libby Hamilton, and she knew of my lifelong fascination with peace and conflict and so forth which stems from my childhood growing up in the Second World War. The publisher wanted a book to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the end of the First World War, and I guess I was one of the obvious people to ask. It was a story I didn't know, but I had something way back in my head, a little inkling of this.

My Dad died a month before I was born and my Mum ran the village shop, in a little village on the East Coast of England. Through that village came thousands and thousands of soldiers on their way to the war, and would spend some time in our village training. At night they would come and play cards in our front room, my Mother would still be working in the shop and so they would take turns to sit by my bedside and tell me stories. Now we had no books at home, so they couldn't open a book but they could open a whole world of stories because they came from many different backgrounds, different cultures.

I found that the more questions I asked them the longer storytime lasted.

I think that's the important thing of an adult reading with a child, is that it shouldn't be the adult reading the story and the child sort of just sucks it up, it should be a joint a thing. That's where the real warmth comes in to it, what's special about sharing a story with a child and encouraging them to ask all kinds of questions. I certainly did that because I didn't want storytime ever to end.

Why do you find real life stories so inspiring?

Stories are amazing, but true stories are truly amazing.

I've always been interested in travel, going to places, and quite often the location in which the story is set is the missing ingredient. Immediately you're dealing with a real place; the people that live there, the animals that live there, the geography, the vegetation is real, even if the story is made up.

I think that comes from being an Art student, always having a sketchbook with me and being encouraged to draw the real world. Not sit in the studio and make stuff up from your imagination. Draw the real world and bring out the magic of the real world.

Why do you think it is so important that children are told stories from the two World Wars?

Children these days are fully aware of what is going on in the world. Even without thinking about it they're fed all sorts of stuff from the television. They know the sorry state of the world, both in terms of conflict but also in terms of pollution and threat to the planet. The world they're growing up in, we old folk have screwed it up. It's one of the subjects I've returned to several times in books is the state of the world. Because they soak this stuff up, the more they can engage with it and be encouraged to engage with the better because it is going to be down to them.

At the end of each of those conflicts the poor soldiers who were suffering meet up and release that 'the other' the enemy so-called are just like them, they don't ant to be there they want to be home with their loved ones.

I think it puts in perspective this knowledge of the futility of it. I think if children can see that they can see how pointless it is to have these petty squabbles, they can see it's all nonsense. I mean now we have cartoon characters running both East and West, and if you can't see what buffoons they are... you know they've made it simpler to see how idiotic it is to have these stupid arguments.

When you create your books, does the story or the illustrations come first?

It all starts with an idea. That could be a visual idea, it could be inspired by something you've seen like a landscape. Or it could be a subject, a topic, which you want to spend time working out. Usually I have in my pocket a notebook, and I'll make notes. Initially there will be words just sort of sketching out a framework, but immediately there will also be in my imagination seeing how I would like to illustrate it.

Long train journeys, long plane journeys are fantastic because I don't have a gadget to tune in to, I don't take anything to read when I'm travelling, I want to be totally totally bored. Boredom makes your brain invent work for itself, and so you can dredge up these things to occupy your brain and sink in to this sort of soup of ideas. Well why don't you make a note before you forget it? Before it's submerged by another idea. Of course it can happen in the middle of the night! So next to the bed have a little notebook, a little fragment of dream put it down before it disappears.

Ideas are everywhere and you never know when you're going to be hit by one.

I was once asked by a child, "where do you get ideas from?" This was in a school. I said what do you have in your pocket and he fiddled around and came out with a snotty tissue and a stub of a pencil. So as a group we talked about where the pencil could have come from. From the shop, before the shop, and of course it comes from a forest, from a tree. When that pencil was part of the tree did ever dream it could be a pencil? Did it want to be something else? You can write a story about anything in your pocket. Everything has a history, it all comes from somewhere and it's going somewhere else.

How important is it for adults to share stories with children?

I think the shared experience is important. Going back to my childhood when these random soldiers and sailors would share their stories, the stories they told wouldn't be made up, they wouldn't be about fairy land, often it would be about where they came from and about the children they had left behind. The children they were missing, the children they would like to have been with rather than answering my questions. I was sort of a surrogate child and they were my surrogate big brothers and uncles.

The shared thing was more important than the story, the shared experience, that kind of connection was more important than the story.

Have you ever met up with any of the soldiers from your childhood?

Yes here was one in particular. His name was Gus and he was a King's Arms Scottish Borderer. He became a particular friend of the family and he continued writing to us every Christmas. Many of them wrote to my Mother for years and years and years till either they died or she died. Gus would continue, after my Mother's death, to send me a Christmas card. We would meet, I would go to the Edinburgh Book Fair and he would come from Glasgow to meet me there, or he would come to Cornwall and stay with us there. He was just fantastic.

What tips have you got for adults who are not used to sharing stories with children?

I would be reluctant to advise anybody about how to tell a story to children. I just think it should not be you telling them a story, it should be you engaging them in the story so it's a two-way thing. The story, no matter whether it's fantasy or reality invites the child to be part of it and to ask you questions about it.

Are there any untold stories milling around in the back of your mind?

I usually work on two or three stories at the same time not knowing in the beginning which one is going to be done first. So I've always got three or four stories ready to go in rough form with the layouts and the pictures and everything. One of them will be the one I think I'll go with this.

That's why I like working with other writers because they come up with ideas I could never have thought of. For example I might have been doing a couple of humorous books on my own, and then to get the shared experience of working with a grown up writer doing real books with chapters and things is a real challenge. Also it requires often a change of style from me, and I've always tried to avoid being known for doing one kind of book.

I've always enjoyed working on classics; Shakespeare, the Old Testament, Grimm and Andersen and so forth. I was lucky for about twenty years of my life I was doing lots of travelling, commissioned to do travel illustrations around the world. So I have this backlog of sketches of locations from different cultures and that it turn has helped me to be asked to illustrate Japanese legends, Chinese legends, Arabian stories.

Can you tell us about your long partnership with BookTrust President Michale Morpurgo?

Well it's good because he is unpredictable, you never know what sort of story he's going to come up with.

We met on a school visit just by accident. I was leaving the school as he arrived and we just shook hands in the corridor. He was late as usual, and so I said next time you're in Cornwall give me a call and about three months later he did. We went out for dinner with our wives and at the end of the evening he gave me a brown envelope with a story in it and a little note, 'if you like the story please would you illustrate it?'

I read it and I didn't want to illustrate it. It was set in Venice and I had just done a book se in Venice. So I said no but, I'm in Cornwall he's in Devon, why don't we do a book about King Arthur because that's where the Arthurian legends are supposed to have happened. So we did King Arthur and we found we liked working together so then we did Robin Hood. We were sitting in Sherwood Forest and he said this is fun what should we do next? We thought well we've done two books about blokes, we should do a girl! So we did Joan of Arc and we went to France where the food was much better.

When working on one we discuss what we would like to do next, sometimes it's an extension of one we're doing or a complete change of pace. I'm really lucky that thirty odd books later he still occasionally asks me to do one.

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