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War Horse author Sir Michael Morpurgo on the power of storytelling

1 April 2021

Children’s Laureate, Sir Michael Morpurgo has been delighting children with his magical storytelling for many years. He is probably best known for his novel, War Horse, which was published in 1982 and later adapted for both stage and screen, but he has written over 120 books.

We spoke to him in late 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Here are just some of his reflections on his storytelling process and the power of creativity. 

On empathy

Books help us to see the world from a range of perspectives, giving us the kind of empathy we really need for the future, he says.

“The only way we cure the difficulties of both our society and the world, is through empathy. And that’s why books are so important, it’s the understanding of others. One thing about my books that has been fascinating for me, is that they are written about 60 or 70 different countries, all over the world. About their history, their take on the world.

“This is useful to help us to get away from being self-centred – thinking of who we are and what we do as being the most important. Empathy is thinking yourself into another person’s history, into another country’s history and then coming to an understanding of people. That inevitably leads to kindness.”

On inspiration

Morpurgo’s books often articulate children’s relationship with nature and have recurring themes of the triumph of outsiders. He says the inspiration for these stories is often found in his everyday life.

“About 40 years ago I was talking to an old man in my local pub about World War I. He told me that his best friend during the war had been his horse. I decided to keep reading about it and discovered that we lost something in the region of a million men and there were about a million horses that didn’t come back as well. So I knew there was some kind of connection here between the men and the horses.

“I didn’t really know what to do with that until I thought, well actually, I’ve read poetry about the First World War, novels about the First World War and they tend to be written for one side or the other. They are German, they can be French, they can be British or American – whatever – but usually from one side. I thought here’s an opportunity to write that story, to tell that story about the universal suffering, through a neutral narrator. The only neutral narrator I could think of was a horse.”

How to write stories

The key to writing great stories is to experience life to the fullest, he argues. “The most important thing is to realise that you can do it. We can all tell stories, so much of it is a matter of confidence. It is also about having something to write about. So, when children ask me, ‘I want to be a writer, how do I start?’ Well the first answer is to live an interesting life. Go places, open your eyes, your ears, open your heart – and keep it open. Then and only then write about something you’re passionate about. Don’t do it as an exercise to make sure your punctuation is right.”

On the magic of children

Writing for children is his biggest passion because of their unique view of the world around them. “I’ve been working with children all my life. I find them fascinating and I’ll tell you why. It’s because they come to life spontaneously, they respond as they feel, as they see and they speak they find. I find that very helpful to me as a grown-up child. When I’m writing about them, I just think about the way they grow, the way they see the world so clearly – I like to reflect that in the books.

This confidence and creative spirit is too often lost at an early age. “I think it gets squeezed out of us as we grow up. The moment you bring fear into a child’s life, whether it’s at home or in the classroom, you inhibit. Children have got a a terrific sense of their own creativity. They don’t worry about things, they just do it – it’s so easy to squeeze that out.”

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