How Michael Morpurgo writes tough stuff for kids

I may have mentioned before that I love children’s literature and I still read many children’s books. Among my favourite children’s authors is Michael Morpurgo.

Now here is an author who knows how to spin a good yarn but what I really admire about his books is that there is no shying away from very serious subjects even though his work is designed for a younger reader… and you don’t get much more serious than war.

No one writes about the devastation of war for children with such skill. There is no dumbing down, people die, animals die, the world is not the same afterwards. On the other hand, you don’t need to scare the living daylights out of your audience completely.

I was very lax with both the reading and the blogging during February. I did not hit my 16 books target and I did not blog (things to do, people to see, you know how it is). Because of that I am rolling four reviews into one in this post – all by Michael Morpurgo and all on the subject of war.

War Horse

I have absolutely no idea why it has taken me so long to get around to reading War Horse. Many of you probably already know the story, either through reading the book or from seeing the play or film.

Farmer’s son Albert’s pride and joy is his farm horse Joey but it is 1914 and Joey is sold to the army and sent to fight on the Western Front. On the front line, charging into battle with his officer astride him, Joey witnesses the full horror of the battlefield. He is captured by Germans, treated well and treated harshly by different people while Europe is plunged into chaos.

In the meantime Albert is also on the Western Front, having joined up to do his patriotic duty.

War Horse is a beautiful book which looks at both sides of a conflict that took Europe apart. It doesn’t paint the British or the Germans as the heroes or the villains, instead drawing good and bad characters on both sides. Morpurgo doesn’t pretend people and animals didn’t die but he deals with it in a matter-of-fact but not gory way. It is fabulous.

Billy the Kid

Billy The Kid takes place during the Second World War and centres on a young footballer in London who is so good he is selected to play for Chelsea and very quickly becomes a firm favourite.

But then young Billy’s brother is killed at Dunkirk and Billy immediately signs up to fight for his country in his brother’s memory. He joins the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Now this book really does lay on the bad news. Billy is injured and will never be able to play top flight football again, his family is wiped out in the Blitz and after the war has ended he becomes a homeless alcoholic.

But he is saved by the kindness of strangers.

Despite the death and destruction, the homelessness, the alcoholism, this is indeed a children’s book and it is written with such clarity and such wisdom that it is perfectly pitched for young readers – just as you would expect.

Private Peaceful

This is just the most incredible book and if you think Michael Morpurgo has already delivered most of the shocks of war in the first two books above, Private Peaceful takes it to another level.

The clock is ticking for Private Thomas Peaceful in the trenches during the First World War and for much of the book the reader doesn’t know why.

The chapter titles are times of day. The first chapter is entitled Five past Ten and the final one is called One Minute to Six. There is a reason for this. Soldiers who had been sentenced to death for cowardice or desertion – and, in two instances, for sleeping at their posts – were shot by firing squad at 6am. More than 290 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed during the First World War by their own comrades. It took until 2006 until they were given a conditional pardon.

Not an easy subject for a child? Well it doesn’t phase Michael Morpurgo in this beautifully written and incredibly sensitive book.

In fact there are two Private Peacefuls in this novel and while that clock is ticking Tommo recalls his childhood shared with his brothers Joe and Charlie, their mum, their Grandmother ‘Wolf’ and their friend Molly.

An Elephant in the Garden

The final of the four war books by Michael Morpurgo that I read in February takes a different stance again.

This time it is not an English soldier/animal as the main protagonist but a German family, specifically a young girl called Elisabeth, her younger brother Karli, their mother and a four-year-old elephant called Marlene.

The family escape from Dresden as the allied forces bomb the very life out of the German city. They head to the country to try and stay with an aunt and uncle and take with them the orphaned elephant from Dresden Zoo where Elisabeth and Karli’s mother worked.

On their way they discover a Canadian airman who has been among those bombing their city but was shot down and who saves Karli from a frozen lake. The family befriends him and he helps them make their way across war torn Germany with the Russians advancing from one side and the Americans from the other.

Michael Morpurgo is a brilliant story teller and he takes no sides. He writes characters that are accessible and you are drawn to them. He writes without sentimentality or gore but doesn’t shy away from the difficult subjects. He neither talks down to his reader nor assumes they cannot cope with the topics he writes about.

Adults ought to read more Michael Morpurgo too.

Incidentally, these aren’t the only books he has written about conflict and I have enjoyed many more including The Mozart Question and Waiting for Anya, which both deal with the Holocaust, Friend Or Foe, Little Manfred and The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips all deal with different aspects of the Second World War, Toro Toro is a novel about the Spanish Civil War, The Kites are Flying is about the Israeli/Palestinian divide and Dear Olly looks at rebel activities in parts of Africa and the volunteer medics who travel to Africa to try and help.

All of the above are well worth a read so give them a try.

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