Michael Morpurgo has a knack of taking one small fact and weaving around it a vibrant tale that brings a slice of history to life.
The first two short novels here will engage and enlighten Years 3 to 5. The inspiration for The Last Wolf was a rock bearing the inscription: "Near this spot was killed the last wolf in Scotland." The story focuses on the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and its hero, Robbie, goes on the run after his parents are killed by the Redcoats. He teams up with a recently orphaned wolf pup and they escape to Canada. An old man discovers the story while researching his family tree, after his granddaughter has forced him to use a computer.
In Toro! Toro! a grandfather tells his grandson about the worst thing he did as a child. Having discovered the horrors of bullfighting, he had planned to save a precious bull from certain death in the ring. On the night he had chosen to set his father's herd free, his village in southern Spain was bombed and his family killed. This elegantly told tale explains the start of the Spanish Civil war with clarity and immediacy.
Morpurgo recently used his literary talents to raise money for the victims of foot and mouth disease with Out of the Ashes, a hard-hitting novel for Year 4 and above. Fifty pence from each sale goes to the Farmers in Crisis Fund. This is a heartfelt account, told by 13-year-old farmer's daughter Becky to her diary, of the effect on her family. The hope with which Becky starts the new year and her thrill at delivering her first lamb turn to despair as the disease takes hold and inevitability reaches Becky's farm.
This book is a tribute to the families who had to deal with this crisis, and will make sense of the events to children who watched them unfold on television. In 1976, Morpurgo and his wife Clare set up the charity Farms for City Children to offer urban children a taste of life on a farm. All three farms had to close in the spring but were open in time to celebrate their 25th anniversary at the end of 2001.
More Muck and Magic, published to mark the occasion, is the charity's second collection of poetry and poems about the countryside. The specially commissioned stories from some of the best children's writers (including Gillian Cross, Jamila Gavin and Margaret Mahy) are upbeat, fresh, and perfect to read aloud to Years 2 and 3. The inclusion of some of Ted Hughes's lighter poems about the natural world is a tribute to his involvement in the charity.
Fiona Lafferty is librarian at St Swithun's junior school, Winchester, Hampshire. See Snapshots, page 30, for a week in the life of the Morpurgos' farm