Owl or Pussycat? How Michael Morpurgo and Polly Dunbar find their inspiration in childhood memories

Published on: 29 October 2020

Former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo and former Writer in Residence Polly Dunbar's new picture book, Owl or Pussycat, was inspired by Michael's early experience of playing the feathery hero in a school play. He and Polly share their favourite memories of childhood, and settle the argument of who's better - owls or pussycats?

Michael, Owl or Pussycat? was inspired by an event in your own childhood – can you tell us about it?

Michael: I was a child at St Mathias with St Cuthberts school in 1948, and it was there that I acted in my very first play. I was Owl in The Owl and The Pussycat - I had a girlfriend at the time and she played the Pussycat! I never forgot it because there was a big audience in the school hall and my mum, and everyone else’s mum, were there watching. And I felt very good being Owl. Never forgotten it.

Polly – what’s your favourite school memory? Do you have a memorable story about being in a play?

Polly: I have very happy memories of putting on school plays. When I was about seven I played The Mad Hatter in a production of Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was the best part as I got to make my own hat! I then went on to write plays with my friends. I enjoyed every part of it - not just the performance but also designing posters, making tickets and so on.

My happiest memory of 'big school' was playing Adrian Mole's mother. Looking back it was quite hilarious as I can’t sing a note! We asked the girl playing Pandora - Adrian's crush - to sing for me, so she stood backstage singing her heart out while I looked wistfully out to the audience. I think it was then I realised I’d be better off becoming an illustrator than becoming an actress. 

When you both illustrate and write, how much are you drawing on your own memories of childhood?

Polly: I think my childhood filters into to everything I do as an illustrator. I have such vivid, colour memories of being little. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I’m a grown-up and no longer six.

Michael: That varies with each book. I’d say that memory is my greatest source of inspiration, that’s for sure. So in The Butterfly Lion I’m the little boy who ran away from school (which is true - I really did!). But this is the most autobiographical of the stories I’ve ever written.

Is there something about childhood that remains the same in each generation?

Polly: I think the magic of a school play is the same in each generation. The costumes, the hustle and bustle of being on stage and of course the pride and tears of the parents watching in the audience. There is a magic to theatre that cannot be replicated online.

I find it strange that this book is published in 2020 when school plays won’t be possible... Christmas pantomimes and puppet shows will struggle. It’s so important to keep all this magic alive as much as we possibly can. We need be transported now more than ever… I hope our book plays its part in keeping some sparkle this Christmas. 

Michael: I should think so. From what I know of my children, and grandchildren, and the children I’ve taught over the last 50 years or so, I should say that the experience of childhood, the joys, the fears, the intensity of it all, the needs, the friendships, the sadnesses - yes, I think children have always been children and will always be children.  

Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Polly Dunbar

What are both of your favourite childhood rhymes - aside from The Owl and The Pussycat

Polly: I loved The Owl and The Pussycat as a child as much as I do now. I also love There Was a Jolly Hunter by Charles Causley, it never failed to make me laugh.

Michael: I used to love all the limericks of Edward Lear, and the one I remember best is the one that begins:

'There was an Old Man with a beard,

Who said, "It is just as I feared!—

Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,

Have all built their nests in my beard.'

Polly, what was the most fun part of illustrating the book?

Polly: When I first read Michael’s text, not only was I excited about drawing the costumes and all the twinkly magic of theatre, what really got me was the broad range of emotions the characters go through- the excitement, the nerves, the feeling of first love in all of it’s glorious awkwardness, what a treat for me and my pencil!

Which are better: owls or cats?

Polly: I couldn’t possibly choose between an owl and a pussycat, both extraordinary and beautiful creatures that have that perfect poetic ‘otherness' about them.

Michael: Owls, of course. We’ve had cats as pets. The trouble is they do kill birds, so we don’t have them anymore. We once found a baby owl that had fallen out of its nest and tried to save it, so I’ve held an owl in my hand and felt its beating heart and been fascinated. I hear owls every night when I go out into the garden before I go to bed. So owls remain in my life, along with the memory of being one once.

Get your hands on your very own copy of Owl or Pussycat

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