WC Fields once counselled, "Never work with children or animals", but for the novelist, Michael Morpurgo, this is the cornerstone of his working life, and both frequently appear at the same time. Morpurgo's stories for children often feature an animal as their protagonist and tackle gritty issues of our time and recent history.
When he is not writing, he devotes himself to his charity, Farms for City Children, welcoming children from inner-city schools to spend a week living and working on his farm. In advance of his appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month, I spoke with Morpurgo about his audience, his stories and his recent involvement with Hollywood.
Morpurgo has published over 120 children's books and from 2003 to 2005 was the Children's Laureate in the UK, an award he set up with his friend, the poet Ted Hughes, in 1989. Morpurgo doesn't shy from tackling complex and dark issues in his books including wars, from the First World War (War Horse) to the current conflict in Afghanistan (Shadow), the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in the UK (Out of the Ashes), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank (The Kites Are Flying).
"I suppose it's how you see children in the first place," Morpurgo says. "The way I speak to children has been very straight. The big law in my head with children is that you never patronise them, that you always speak to them as if they are people, albeit small and have lived fewer years, but nonetheless they have a very sophisticated outlook on life.
"They are hugely interested in everything that is going on around them, and when I tell my stories I am conscious of the fact that the audience I am writing or telling my stories to is intelligent, perceptive, worldly-wise."
Morpurgo, who has worked with children for more than 35 years, first as a teacher and then through Farms for City Children, believes that the current generation of children have more exposure than ever before to the world around them, via the internet, television and radio, which they need help to understand. "When I was young, the only way children found out about the rest of the world was through what their parents told them, through talk in the playground and, possibly, the radio. That was it. So actually the world was filtered, there was a presentation that people gave to you to protect you. Even if you wanted to do that now, and I'm sure a lot of parents would want to do that, it's really hard to do it. What stories can do is to deal with that world of difficulty, of pain, of grief, of sorrow, of suffering and the joys and the wonders, but deal with them in a way that children can come to comprehend how the world is, maybe their place in the world, other people's place in the world, and their relationship with other living creatures, with the planet."
He acknowledges that writing about complex issues puts an onus of fair presentation on the writer and Morpurgo selects his narrators carefully to achieve this. "I think it is important to present a balanced view and what one must never do is indoctrinate children," he says. "The thing is to say how you see the world, but then to present it in a way where you leave the reader the option to choose, to make their own judgements and assessments.
"In War Horse, the convention of the horse telling the story is enormously useful simply because it allows me to tell of the universal suffering in that war through the eyes and ears of the horse. You see how British soldiers feel, how German soldiers feel, French people on whose land it is all being fought. It allows you deeper into the whole subject of what it is to be engaged in a struggle like that," Morpurgo explains.
In The Kites Are Flying he uses a journalist as his central character, whose professional objectivity helps to present tales of suffering from both sides of the dividing wall.
Morpurgo discovered his talent for storytelling as a teacher. At the end of the school day, he was required to spend half an hour telling the children a story. He started telling stories he had made up, and soon left teaching to write full-time. In 1974, he and his wife Clare bought a farm in Iddesleigh, Devon, the village where War Horse was later set and in 1976 set up Farms for City Children. The charity now runs three farms and more than 70,000 children have benefited from the experience.
Morpurgo's writing, too, has benefited, as working with children on the farms has given him plenty of insight into the relationships between children and animals. "Children have an instinctive empathy with animals," he says. This has both fascinated and inspired him, and was in no small part the genesis of the book War Horse.
"About 20 years ago, there was a little boy who came to the farm, whom I will call Billy. He had a stammer, and I had been told by the teachers he never, never spoke, though I had noticed how confident he was with the animals. I came into the yard behind the house on this dark November night and saw there was a light on above the stable, and there was Billy, standing in his slippers underneath the horse's head, stroking the horse, Hebe, and talking 19 to the dozen. There wasn't an interruption to the flow of his words at all, so I went to fetch the teachers and we stood there and we witnessed this, this extraordinary miracle, really, of the effect of an animal on a boy's confidence.
"He wasn't being judged, he wasn't being mocked, and he was in a situation where he trusted this horse. Then I noticed that the horse trusted him because the horse stayed there, that the horse was listening to him, and that this was a two-way ticket. And that's what's interesting: not the animals themselves, but the relationship between us and them, and them and us. That's what very much made me write War Horse; that a horse can respond."
This December, Steven Spielberg's film of War Horse is due to be released, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and Emily Watson. Originally written by Morpurgo in 1982, the enduringly popular story has also been adapted into an award-winning stage play in London using life-size puppets to portray the horses. The show will start a New York run at the Lincoln Center Theatre in April.
War Horse is not the first of Morpurgo's books to be made into a film; one of his other novels, Why the Whales Came was made into a film in 1989 and starred Helen Mirren. But he maintains that the transformation of his story from page to stage to screen has happened by "pure, pure, accident". Kathleen Kennedy, a producer on several of Spielberg's films, saw the theatre production of War Horse during a holiday in London, and loved it, Morpurgo explains. "So she picks up the phone and rings [Spielberg] and a week later he comes over to England and sees the show and is blown away by it, and decides this is the first film he is going to make in four years, and within a year the film is made." He modestly adds: "It has absolutely nothing to do with anything I have done, it's just happened. It is just great good fortune from the time when Tom Morris [the co-director of the stage play] first read the book, to the time when Kathleen Kennedy walked into that theatre, to the time when Steven Spielberg decided 'I want to make a film of that'."
Morpurgo's latest book, Little Manfred, set to be published later this year, was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in London as part of a project in which authors were invited to write a story about an item on display in the museum. Morpurgo's object is a pull-along dachshund toy dog. "It was made out of wood from apple crates on a farm in Kent by a German prisoner of war in 1945. This was a leaving present he gave the little girl who lived on the farm when he left," he explains. Morpurgo's novella is set in the UK in 1966 at the time of the Football World Cup Final between Germany and England, and tells of two old sailors, one German and one British, who are reunited and journey back to the farm where the German was interned during the war.
A source in the film world tells me that we may even see Morpurgo in a cameo role in War Horse when it is released later this year. Morpurgo, however, does not comment; the whole production has been shrouded in secrecy. Whether or not his scene makes the final cut, we will be able to see him at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on March 12 - a great opportunity to hear this master storyteller first-hand.