Michael Morpurgo on how a classic tale inspired him to write the story of a young refugee

Published on: 24 September 2019

BookTrust President Michael Morpurgo’s new book, Boy Giant, is a retelling of the classic story Gulliver’s Travels, replacing Gulliver with young refugee Omar. Here’s why he decided to write it.

Michael Morpurgo & Boy Giant

Please tell us a bit about your fantastic new book, Boy Giant: Son of Gulliver.

It is the story of Omar, a young refugee from Afghanistan who is washed up half-dead on the shores of Lilliput, where he finds himself a giant amongst all the little Lilliputians who care for him. They think he is Gulliver, a hero to all of them, because they all know the story of how Gulliver saved Lilliput hundreds of years before. It is an island paradise where kindness and goodwill rule, where strangers are welcomed in. Omar soon discovers it is a paradise under threat.

Boy Giant plays with the idea of a stranger arriving in a distant land, with the stranger being a refugee child in your story. What's important when writing about war and refugees for children?

It seems to me to be very important that children these days grow up with an awareness of the world around them.

The sorrows and the joys both and one of the great sorrows that we have is that large numbers of people, millions of people are on the move in the world at the moment, some of them ending up on our shores and the shores of Europe. We know what grief and suffering there is in the journeys and very often they get sent back.

It's a question really of developing our sense of compassion, of understanding of the lives of others.

All that generally happens with refugees is that people count up numbers: it's 80 people rescued from the Channel today, or 2000 people washed up on an island in Greece in a month. They're not individuals, not sons, daughter, mothers, fathers, grandparents and babies. We only ever wake up when we see a photograph of a child being carried dead along a beach and then we know. I think it's important to write about those things so we read them in this country where we are relatively comfortable.

What inspired the connection between Gulliver and the experience of a refugee child?

I was asked to do the retelling of Gulliver by Michael Foreman 25 years ago and certainly it is wonderfully worth doing as they are great stories, of which Gulliver is one. But the problem is that they were written for then. They were written about those times and Jonathan Swift wrote them because he was fiercely critical of how things were in the world about him then.

Well the world is now and you can't expect an 8 or 9 year-old children to hop back to the 18th century and understand what Jonathan Swift was writing about.

So I thought I don't want to do a retelling, I want to somehow use this wonderful story but make it a critique of our own times. This whole question of refugees of the movement of migrants around the world is important. As I sit here really comfortably, there are people in dinghies coming across the Mediterranean, coming across the Channel and they've left people behind. There are people they know who have died and there is no certainty at all about what is going go happen to them.

I use aspects of that wonderful Jonathan Swift story. He writes quite a bit about how absurd the squabbles are between people, whether it is religions or countries. There is a war going on between Lilliput and the island next door and the war has been caused by whether people eat their eggs from the sharp end first or the round end first. I thought what a wonderful notion, so I've pinched that idea from Jonathan Swift but I have written a nice acknowledgement to him and I've said I'd pay him some of the royalties later!

Have you always been a fan of Gulliver's Travels? If so, what appealed to you about it when you first read it?

I think I first read it in a book called Classics Illustrated so I had this image that I think most kids have who have read it anyway, of this giant sailor in buckled shoes and a long coat and a tricorn hat. He's lying on a beach and there are all these little people who have tied him down called Lilliputians. It's such an extraordinary image of literature and the story is wonderful. It's a very fascinating story about how he gets on with the authorities and the people of this island, and how he is used by them and how he uses them in return. It's wonderful, epic story – worth looking at again all these years later.

There's an interesting change of status for Omar in the story, from a refugee boy to a hero and savior of a lost land. Tell us more about that, and how you explored ideas of the big and powerful in society, and the small and powerless.

It is the small and powerless that are really interesting.

I have to think of individuals and what I can tell you is that I know one individual, and of course there were thousands of them all over the world, who was forced and obliged to leave her country, just before the Nazis invaded in the 1930s and brought across first to France and then to England. She is very well known to readers of books. She is Judith Kerr and she was simply a little girl, German, Jewish, and ended up living in England with her family, and then the war happened.

And then you think to yourself, this is a refugee, this is a migrant child and you look at what she is giving to the English speaking world, to the world at large in terms of stories.

There is the Tiger Who Came to Tea and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. They came from a migrant child and time and time again, what we are learning is that families who have come here, across the seas, they've become part of who we are and some of them have extraordinary talents, just like some of us who have been growing here for some time have extraordinary talents.

Others are less talented but it doesn't matter. The point is that they are all worthwhile and they should be treated with great respect and affection.

The wonderful things about Judith was that she developed over her 95 years of life, probably the greatest affection I've ever witnessed in anyone else for her country. It wasn't patriotism, there wasn't any flag waving. It was gratitude that she had been brought up in a country where you can say what you feel, write what you feel, paint what you feel, and how that country had welcomed her family when they were in dire need and I just think that sort of example is what we have to keep and eye on.

There's also a hint that the island paradise where Omar finds himself is under some sort of threat. Children are key in the struggle for change around environmental issues in the world at the moment: how important are children's books as a way to inform the next generation?

The wonderful thing about children's books is that by and large, children are at the centre of the action. They're the people who make stuff happen. They are sometimes victims as the story starts but they are very often the story of a child finding a way through, whether it is Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland, the child is the one that has to go through all these experiences and end up before the end, in some sense having successfully completed a path through early life.

I think that's important. Children must be empowered by books. They mustn't be patronised by them. So you can set the stories in times which are difficult and they can go through difficult things, whether it be war or grieving or other things. But it is important that there is resolution, not neat little things to tie it all up, but ones that are associated with the difficulties and complexities of life, things that do not always have sweet endings but there must be optimism finally at the end of a story. And I think if a child has that then they are enabled, just as their hero in a book manages.

It is about coping and managing and I think feeling love is very important. And there is something else about reading of a book that we forget. When a child reads a book and when grown ups read books. We go through periods when we feel very alone and children feel that a lot and very often we don't' talk about those things.

When you are inside a book and you are relating to other people, you are with the story, there is this sense of belonging which is very, very important.

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