Michael Morpurgo, the new Children's Laureate: So what's the real story?

With the success of J K Rowling, Philip Pullman et al, you wouldn't think children's literature needed a champion. But, the bestselling writer Michael Morpurgo tells Joanna Briscoe, as the new Children's Laureate, he aims to be just that
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The Independent Culture

Yesterday, Michael Morpurgo was created the new Children's Laureate. What, exactly, is the nature of such an honour? And, more to the point, who is its distinctively named yet strangely obscure beneficiary? Originated in 1998 by Ted Hughes and – well, yes – Michael Morpurgo, the Children's Laureate is a kind of life-time's Oscar for children's writers and illustrators that carries with it certain public-spirited obligations to promote the gentle art of kid-lit.

The two previous laureates were that familiar spiky illustrator of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake, and one of the undoubted stars of the children's literary firmament, Anne Fine. So far so famous. But the current incumbent? A quick search for Michael Morpurgo on the internet brings up almost 23,000 entries. He's big in France. Children clearly adore him. He's bagged the Whitbread, the Children's Book Award and the Smarties prize in a career that spans 30 years and has seen his books translated into 26 languages. The man has produced a thundering 94 titles to date, with more than 60 of them in print. Yet, in this shimmering era of children's literature, where the names of Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine and the sainted JK are known even to myopic pensioners, Morpurgo inhabits some murky region of almost-recognition. None of his titles – from the filmed Why the Whales Came to the televised Out of the Ashes – are instantly familiar either. It's all a little puzzling.

The new laureate lives in a thatched house in rural Devon, with Dartmoor louring on the near horizon. That other laureate, Ted Hughes, was a neighbour and close friend. Michael Morpurgo strides into view, grasps my hand, and declares we're all off to the pub for lunch. I protest that I'd rather speak to him without the possible constraints of his wife's presence, but this is the Morpurgo way. He and his wife Clare are hospitably all-inclusive, hosts each year to hundreds of city kids at their farms (more of which later). And, as a former teacher, Morpurgo clearly expects compliance.

Perhaps fortunate, then, that there's no sycophantic versifying for our princelings involved in his laureate role – despite the associations the name instantly evokes. "No no, I have no regal role at all." He intends to spend his two years in the position working hard to "lift children's literature in the eyes of both children and adults. To bang the drum a bit, and to blow the trumpet when necessary."

But surely children's literature is a boom business, garlanded with news headlines and £1m advances? "I think the children's writers who are known are either the ones who are dead, or they're writers who have done what is called 'crossover'," says Morpurgo. "The point of the Children's Laureate is to try to focus on people like Alan Ahlberg, Dick King-Smith, all these people who write wonderful stories but not necessarily crossover books. All the publicity has been about the advances, the big Hollywood movies and all the rest of it, but children's literature? I don't think so."

Will people think that there's a connection between the award and the fact that he was one of its creators? "I've no doubt they'll think that. They can think that all they want," he replies sharply. "The truth is that I have nothing to do with the selection of it. In a way, I think it was probably almost a deterrent." It was given to him "largely because I'm old, I should think".

But Morpurgo's writing had something to do with it too. "My mother instilled in me a great love for the sound of words," he says, "but school had made me very frightened of all that, and literature and stories became very desiccated and withered for me. When I was teaching, I used to tell the children stories out loud in class, and I found they listened – that was the great thing. And I began to think, well, I could do this stuff. So I wrote a story down, sent it off to a publisher and got lucky. They wrote back and said, 'Yes, but would you do four more?'"

His style is hard to define, simply because, despite the author's almost Blytonesque rate of production, he defies genre. "I'm not very good at doing the same thing again, which is not very convenient to publishers," he says. He is firmly wedded to the transmutation of factual event, the current trend towards children's fantasy leaving him cold. "I can't do fantasy to save my life. I tend to take things that are factually true and then tell a big lie," he says. His style is remarkably uncluttered: neither poetic nor edgy with contemporary vernacular, it simply conveys a story in plain prose. "I think the key to writing for children, for me anyway, is not to write for them. You just write your story, you tell your tale... I think, if anything, I'm a storyteller rather than a novelist." A classic Morpurgo novel will plunge straight inside the head of a protagonist, frequently expressing an outsider's sensibility, and deliver an exciting story, roughly suited to the nine- to 11-year-old market, that encompasses anything from a slice of history to life as a foster child.

The role of laureate will suit him. He is genuinely passionate about children's literature, and, as the son of two actors, he is a performer to the marrow. With his declamations, controlled inflections and mastery of the pause, he could orate for Britain in pure RP. At almost 60, dressed in faded blue knitted waistcoat and red socks, his hair reasonably windswept-wild, he can appear like a hammy old squire, patrician yet kindly to the last, a combination of stiff upper lip and sloping, tragedy-struck eyebrows. It's only when he's in the presence of children or probed about his own childhood that the armour drops, and the warm and thoroughly likeable Morpurgo emerges.

His youth was neither the splashy idyll nor the unmitigated spell in hell that one might expect of a man who's spent his life re-creating childhood. Born in Hertfordshire in 1943, his boyhood was a classic upper-middle-class English study in repression. His father, an actor called Tony van Bridge, left before his son could remember him, and his Rada-trained mother then married a soldier-turned-Penguin editor called Morpurgo (the name is Jewish, from Trieste). Michael and his older brother were adopted; two more children were born. "It was a strange childhood because there was always a tension at the heart of it. I was aware of the fact quite early on that the most difficult thing in my mother's life was making her second marriage work. My stepfather was a very strong character. We were almost in the background, compared with her determination to make that relationship work."

Michael Morpurgo had never even seen a photo of his real father, though he was "very well aware that there was this other father who wasn't there. In those days, a divorce was such a shameful thing that no one ever talked about it, and it was made out that we were this one big happy family. But there was this tension; you could hear it crackling." The terrible silence was broken one day when, aged 19, Michael was watching Great Expectations on television with his family. Magwitch appeared: "Up reared this terrible face, and my mother grasped my arm and said, 'Oh my God, that's your father!' So the first time I saw my father, he was a convict. I was trying to look through his make-up to find out what the hell he looked like."

Morpurgo was sent, at the age of seven, to The Abbey, a now defunct Sussex prep school – "a great, big Victorian castellated mansion surrounded by its own parkland" – that clearly inflicted even deeper wounds than he is willing to describe. "My prep school was pretty dire and I was very unhappy there... Very strange schoolmasters whom I'd prefer not to talk about," he says. "What governed my life was the fear of punishment. You did lie awake at night hearing someone being slippered or caned, and you'd hear them saying, 'Owsa, owsa'. The build-up before going back to school was terrible – when you were literally counting the hours, this awful sickening feeling so that you couldn't eat the day before."

Morpurgo later attended the King's School, Canterbury, and then King's College, London, where he studied English and French before setting off to Sandhurst in search of a vocation. He met his future wife Clare on a rubbish dump in Corfu. Shortly afterwards, he abandoned his military career. "She sort of asked the question, what are you doing marching up and down?" The teaching stint followed. Clare, who turns out to be no meddling PR, and whose occasional teasing only enhances Morpurgo's flow, is the daughter of Britain's most famous publisher, Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, and originator of the paperback. Despite country casuals and sensible steely bob, she possesses the kind of beauty, all cheek bones and blue-green gaze, that transcends age. After 40 years of marriage, the Morpurgos, parents to Sebastian, Horatio and Rosalind, and grandparents to six, emanate mutual adoration, seemingly personifying that phenomenon so rarely stumbled upon in life: loved-up oldsters who serve as a beacon of romantic hope for the rest of us.

The couple have also spent 30 years working together for the charity they founded, Farms for City Children. As with other Morpurgo productions, the numbers involved are reasonably flabbergasting. At three different farms, the Morpurgos provide a week of authentic farming for inner-city children from about 100 schools a year. An estimated 50,000 children have so far undergone the life-changing experience. "You know, you feel you've done something, in a small way," says Clare, who, with Michael, received an MBE for her work for charity. We visit the nearby Nethercott farm, which is Hogwarts incarnate: a high-Victorian architectural fantasy guaranteed to feature in swathes of subsequent daydreams.

So why is Michael Morpurgo not yet firmly lodged in the general public – or at least adult – consciousness? "This is where adult's and children's books divide," he says. "Most children's books are known by their title, not their author." In the case of Michael Morpurgo, MBE, this could change with his new laureate role. And yet, as ever, his focus is trained steadily upon childhood: "The important thing for an adult is that you don't lose the sense of the child in you," he says. "I think the adults who are most interesting to me are the ones who know perfectly well that the child in you is your soul, and you'd better keep it."