Michael Morpurgo's top tips for sharing stories with children

Published on: 31 August 2022

The books we love as children stay with us our whole lives... but how can you make a story memorable when you read it with a little one? Author and former Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo shares his top tips for reading with children, as well as one of his favourite stories from childhood.

Michael MorpurgoMichael Morpurgo

I grew up with Edward Lear’s poem The Owl and The Pussycat. My mum recited it to us often when we went to bed, and we recited it with her, knew every word of it, loved it. Still love it.

Not surprising then that when I was older, a lot older, I wrote a story about it, around it. Memory plays a large part in my story-making. Owl or Pussycat is mostly a true story. At my Primary School we used to put on Christmas plays, and for most of us it was the first play we ever acted in. And we never forget it, the dressing up, the rehearsals, the excitement, the buzz of the audience the other side of the curtain, the things that went wrong, the laughter, the applause.

Aged 7, I was Owl in our play of The Owl and the Pussycat, and I was cast opposite ‘Belinda’ who was The Pussycat. And Belinda was my girlfriend. I mean in real life. There was a moment in the show when I forgot my lines and she prompted me, helped me. I remember taking my bows, and how proud of me my mother was. And she was an actress. From that performance on I wanted to go on the stage and act in plays. 

Illustration: Polly DunbarIllustration: Polly Dunbar

Sadly I never did. I became a story-maker instead. But sometimes I do get up on stage and tell my stories, sometimes I even sing. And sometimes my stories are made into plays or films or concerts. And given half a chance I will put on a costume and get in there amongst the real actors and be part of the performance again, as I did at St Matthias and St Cuthbert’s all those years ago in The Owl and the Pussycat. I gave my first ever reading of the story to all the children at the school just after the book came out. I was acting again at St Matthias, well, sort of. 

It’s wonderful to think of my story, which has been so amazingly and beautifully illustrated by Polly Dunbar, being read by so many children out there. I so want children to be able to have the opportunity to read all the books they can, all sorts; for every school to have a great school library. I’d love it too, if all children could be able to join in plays, make music, dance, perform. And all children should be able to go to see plays. All of this opens doors, opens hearts and minds, opens up possibilities. 

I didn’t become an actor, but I did become a writer. I really think that began with my mother reading to me in bed, and with being in that Owl and the Pussycat play at school.

Michael Morpurgo’s tips on sharing stories with children

  1. I can only tell you about what worked for me as a teacher all those years ago. In the primary school where I worked in Kent, we would have half an hour at the end of the day from 3 to 3.30 in the afternoon to read stories. It was whilst I was reading one of my own stories that I realised the children liked it and I wrote it down.
  2. Let the children choose the stories they want to read but make sure they’re books that you as the teacher and reader are passionate about too. What really counts is that the story matters to you and that the children see that it matters to you. Just as the poems and stories that my  mother read to me as a child were ones that she loved. She passed that love on to my brother and me.
  3. Don’t go on with a book it if it’s boring your listeners. And don’t test them, on grammar, or spelling or meaning. Let the story and the words speak for themselves. And put as much of yourself into the telling of it. You could act it out or watch a film of the book if there is one.
  4. For stories to come alive, try getting outside the classroom if you can. Go to museums, art galleries and visit historical settings of the book. Go out into nature if you are reading about animals and the natural world. Plays are a wonderful way of storytelling and they’re also really important in encouraging empathy.

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