Letter from a Laureate: Sir Michael Morpurgo
To celebrate 20 years of the Waterstones Children's Laureates in 2019, we asked every Laureate to tell us their thoughts, memories and aims while holding the most inspiring post in children's literature.
Here is what Michael Morpurgo, who helped set up the Laureateship, had to say.
I know the beginning of the story because I was there, and I know the first ten chapters quite well too, the third chapter especially well. This is a unique story that many writers and illustrators have made together. Each may have written or drawn her or his own chapter, but it is all one story, and with any luck this story might make a great fat book that will last a long, long time. And like all the best stories, no one knows where the next chapter might lead us, and like the best books we never want them to end.
Once upon a time
The story began in front of a log fire after a convivial dinner with friends and neighbours, Ted and Carol Hughes. I was grumbling on about the lack of attention and credit generally given in the adult world to children’s books, how they were so often patronised and disregarded. Hughes, Poet Laureate at the time, stirred up the fire, sending the sparks flying.
For a while, he said very little but let me drone on. Then he said something like, 'A fine children’s book is as important and worthwhile as any kind of literature, and maybe more so. Read and love a great story or poem when you’re young, and the chances are that you’ll become a reader for life, and maybe a writer or an artist. Something should be done.'
'You’re the Poet Laureate,' I ventured, 'Maybe we should have a Children’s Laureate.' It was a throwaway line.
More stirring of the fire, more sparks. Then he said: 'Why not? Let’s do it. Lets not just talk about it. Let’s write down a list of people, government ministers, sponsors, experts and enthusiasts, anyone who can help make it happen.' So he did. And then he wrote letters to them. He arranged meetings, spoke up with great passion for the project, and when Ted Hughes spoke, people listened. It’s how he was.
The start of the Laureate story
So the idea for the Laureate story began, and took shape. Ted Hughes died before Quentin Blake was crowned our first Children’s Laureate. It was a sad beginning to our story, but Quentin set the standard, and in his two years brought the best of art of illustration of children’s books to the public eye in a way never done before. I recall seeing his illustrations exhibited in among the great master paintings at the National Gallery. So the first chapter was a stunning beginning.
And every chapter since has taken the Laureate story in a different direction, always exciting, surprising, always inspiring and enlightening. I was lucky enough to be invited to write the third chapter of this story, choosing to concentrate on the magic and enjoyment of storytelling, and spent my two years travelling, from the Isle of Jura to Ireland, to Bristol and Newcastle and to Birmingham, from Moscow to Jordan and Soweto, from France to Canada. I told my stories, to children, to teachers, to parents, tried to encourage them to read and write their own stories, to convince them that everyone has a story to tell.
I loved especially to go to remote places, where writers rarely went. Scottish Book Trust took me on a tour of the Highlands and Islands, to schools and village halls and old people’s homes. We went all over in a rickety old yellow bus. Not comfortable but a lot of fun. It was all fun and surprises.
Writers on Jura
Most fun and most surprising was our visit to the little primary school on Jura. Twelve children, two teachers. With a view from the classroom window out over the sea, I have never forgotten. Not forgotten either was my meeting with the children. I gave my talk and asked for questions. They seemed quite reluctant to speak up, so I was relieved when the tallest girl in the group put up her hand. She spoke with great confidence.
'I haven’t got a question,' she began, 'I just want to tell you something. You aren’t the first writer to come here, you know.'
Slightly put out, but trying hard not to show it, I said, 'That’s good. So who was here before me then?'
'He was called George Orwell,' she told me. 'And when he he came, he wrote a book and he stayed in my mother’s cottage by the sea.' There and then she walked up to me and gave me a card. 'Here’s my mother’s card. She says you could stay there in the cottage too if you like and maybe you could write a book, like George Orwell did.'
Well, I’m still trying.
Inspiring thousands of children
I’m so glad I was a Children’s Laureate. But I was glad when my chapter in the ongoing story was over. I could get back to writing again, rather than just talking about it. I’ve loved watching and listening since, as other Laureates have told their chapters, each of them giving fresh inspiration to so many thousands of children, and grown-up children too, raising ever greater awareness of the importance of children’s literature in our culture and in our society.
Great things from small beginnings grow.