Going toe Toto

Going toe Toto

Caroline Carpenter meets Michael Morpurgo to discuss the importance of libraries, his decades of charity work and the travails of Leicester City.

Caroline Carpenter Are you looking forward to being Author of the Day at the London Book Fair tomorrow?

Michael Morpurgo Yes, it’s an honour to be chosen for it, but I’m not quite sure what my function will be other than to support what we’re all doing, which is trying to get kids reading. It’s a good place for everyone concerned with books to unite. We’re all in this together.

CC You said you want to get more children reading, why do you think that’s important?

MM Books encourage children to empathise, which is why we have to try to get them reading much more than they are. The children’s book world has never been richer, but we’re not reaching the millions of children who do not have a book in their house. From my point of view, the London Book Fair is an opportunity to focus on the importance of books for young people.

CC Did you always want to write books for kids?

MM Not at all. I was a primary school teacher and I discovered that I loved telling the children stories and found, to my amazement, that they listened. So I just kept practising. The headteacher listened in and she knew someone who worked in a publishing house. By accident, I became a writer.

CC After writing more than 140 books, how do you come up with ideas for new ones?

MM Well, it’s easier now than it was when I started and that is because I’ve lived a long life—I’m 73, a lot has happened. It feeds the well of ideas that I have inside me and so far I’ve never run out. You have to look hard and talk to people and listen to their answers. Keep your eyes open, keep your ears open, keep your heart open.

CC Has children’s publishing changed since you started writing?

MM Yes, I think it has changed. What needs mentioning is that there are not enough books by new authors. We know it’s the greatest risk of all to publish new writers and that’s something the publishing world needs to think about, because that’s where your next Philip Pullman or J K Rowling will come from. The children’s publishing world is a huge contribution to our national culture and our international reputation. It’s something to be really proud of. It’ll be good to be in the middle of the buzz of that world coming together for a few days in London.

CC Do you think more needs to be done to promote diversity in children’s books?

MM Certainly diversity is really important because we have a society that needs diversity, it’s completely logical. I think schools now up and down the country are massively encouraging interest in minority communities, cultures and religions. Maybe we need to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds in the first place to grow up to be writers. That’s done by great teaching at school and by having libraries, particularly in the areas of the country where there is deprivation.

CC You have spoken out about the importance of libraries. A lot of libraries in the UK are losing funding and closing down—what are your thoughts on that?

MM I think it’s awful short-termism. We seem to forget that stories, poems, books, are our national heritage and the right of every child to have. It’s also immensely hypocritical because every government will say education is a priority but if you close the libraries, you shut off the oxygen which the community needs to become engaged with its literature and, therefore, its cultural heritage. It’s completely wrong for the government to abandon libraries, but I think everyone else has got to pick up the ball and run with it, which means supporting those libraries that are there, working to stop them being closed down and encouraging our education establishments to put libraries at the centre of schools.

The stage adaptation of War Horse has helped the novel become Morpurgo's top seller to date

CC You do a lot of work with children, including the Farms for City Children charity, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Why did you set it up, and how is it going?

MM I set it up because of my wife. She had a suburban childhood but her dad decided to take her down to Devon for a week to stay with a friend of his, so as a seven-year-old she discovered the countryside. Since this affected her so much, and similarly, my life had been touched by growing up on the Essex coast, the two of us decided it every child in this country should have that opportunity—particularly those in the cities who don’t have a connection with the countryside. So I have been close to children all of my writing life, listening to them, observing them, reading to them, and that’s been a great help.

CC Are you working on anything at the moment?

MM There are a couple of books to mention. One is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz. That is with HarperCollins, with a wonderful illustrator called Emma Chichester Clark. As everyone knows, there’s a dog called Toto; my new book [with HarperCollins Children’s] will be told from Toto’s perspective. It was a lot of fun, I enjoyed doing that.

I was also asked by Coram House, an orphanage set up in the 18th century by a man called Thomas Coram, to write a story about one of the orphans. So I worked on an idea: that one of these kids from the streets of London spent a week with Mozart when he visited England aged eight, and the story is about the effect they had on each other’s lives. I’ve called it Lucky Button, and it will be published by Walker Books. It’s the weaving of centuries, of classes, of cultures. I really loved making that.

CC You wrote The Fox and the Ghost King about the ghost of Richard III helping Leicester City Football Club to its historic Premiere League win last year. What do you think about the club’s performance at the moment?

MM It is dire. I think at some point someone must’ve gone to see the tomb of Richard III and called my story a “lot of rubbish”. I bet he was absolutely furious about that and thought, “Now I’m going to put a curse on the football team!” I want the team to stay up and then go and talk to Richard and apologise. It’ll be fine then.

Michael Morpurgo’s Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz (HarperCollins Children’s Books) will be published on 7th 3 September. Lucky Button will be issued by Walker Books on 2nd November.