Day dreams, lies and other tales

19th March 2004 at 00:00
The Children's Laureate is sharing his writing secrets with hundreds of children on a tour of Scotland, writes Karen Shead

Michael Morpurgo is a busy man. As well as being the Children's Laureate, he has more than 100 books to his name, runs a charity and is currently on a whistlestop tour of Scotland.

The Scottish Friendly Children's Laureate Tour, which started last month, sees him travelling from the Scottish Borders up to the Highlands and Islands.

It includes public events as well as visits to schools and libraries. By the time it finishes in June, more than 4,000 children will have met him.

On World Book Day, March 4, Morpurgo was in Edinburgh, talking to hundreds of children at Queen's Hall in the morning and opening a library at Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior school in the afternoon.

The morning event was tipped to be one of the highlights of the tour, which is being sponsored by Scottish Friendly Assurance and presented by the Scottish Book Trust. More than 800 children gathered to listen to the author of The Butterfly Lion, Kensuke's Kingdom, Cool! and Private Peaceful (among dozens of other books) as he told stories and shared secrets.

Ten minutes before he was due on stage there was a definite buzz of excitement. Children were busy chatting and waving posters of Morpurgo's book covers in the air. Then suddenly everything went quiet.

From the moment he walked on to the stage, booming "Happy World Book Day", to the moment he stopped talking, the audience were hanging on his every word. The wee ones in the upper circle stood up to get a better view; they all closed their eyes when told and put their hands up when asked a question.

After explaining the importance of World Book Day and his involvement with the charity Book Aid International, Morpurgo proceeded to delight and entertain the audience with his tales.

He has more than 100 books to his name and is often described as a storyteller in the flesh as well as in print. It is a fitting description.

He is lively, energetic and enthusiastic and relates to the children by using the language they use and knowing what makes them laugh. It is knowledge that comes from being a father, grandfather, former primary teacher and co-founder (with his wife) of the charity Farms For City Children.

"Children interest me," he says in response to a question as to why he chooses to write for children. "I married very young, and I had children very young. I know children really well. You are seeing the world for the first time and that interests me."

He is quick to point out that he doesn't write just for children. "I don't choose to write for children, I write for me. I write about what I care about: my childhood, the childhood of other people."

It is not often that children will readily put their hands up and admit to being liars, but they do for him. As he talks about the art of writing stories he says: "Hands up who are good liars. Come on, hands up you grotty children." After looking at the response he says: "Join the club, so am I."

In response, the children express a mixture of surprise and delight.

Morpurgo proceeds to talk about themes that run through his stories - loneliness, for example - and explains the inspiration for his books.

He also divulges secrets about his own experiences at boarding school and has the audience in fits of giggles as he imitates his tall French teacher, who was Australian, and the short Scottish matron.

A question and answer session follows. When asked what made him start writing, he explains: "I taught in a school and the headteacher used to come in and interrupt my class. One day she came in and said that from three o'clock to half past I had to read a story to the children.

"I was reading to 10- and 11-year-olds, so I thought I'd have to ham it up a bit. But when I was reading I looked up and they were staring into space, picking their noses or looking out of the window.

"Later I was talking to my wife, who is a teacher as well, and she said 'Go in and tell them a story'. 'You are joking,' I said, 'they will eat me alive'. 'Are you frightened?' she asked. I said 'Yes.' " But that is exactly what he did. He made up stories, told them and eventually he wrote them down.

The first tip he offers to budding writers is to live an interesting life.

"Don't sit there and watch television. It's not your view of the world, it's someone else's. Meet people, go places and take lots of risks," he says.

"Secondly, read quite a lot. Not just great literature, all sorts."

Thirdly: "Write a diary; not a proper diary, but write about the most important thing that happens to you each day."

Then a child asks: "What's the best thing about writing a book?" Morpurgo answers: "It's like having a dream during the daytime." Surely that is an answer to inspire children to put pen to paper.

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