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Modern adventure, or: why I love Michael Morpurgo

 

By Kathy Pillatzki
Assistant Director
Henry County Library System

  I’m often asked to recommend a good book for middle-grade readers, or a good read-aloud for a mixed age group, or a book that will spark the attention of reluctant readers. For all of those questions, one author immediately comes to mind: Michael Morpurgo.

  Morpurgo is a British author who writes primarily for children, and in my not-so-humble opinion is one of the most underrated writers working today. This could be for any number of reasons; his books are usually published in Great Britain first, making him he ineligible for many of the major literary awards presented in this country each year. Though he has won many literary awards in his native country, they haven’t given him much name recognition on this side of the Atlantic. I had hoped his writing would reach a wider audience when one of his books, War Horse, was made into a movie in 2011, but as often happens in the movie industry the big-name stars got big-screen credit, while Morpurgo’s name was in the microscopic print.

  Whatever the reason, I never miss an opportunity to recommend his books. They are a fascinating blend of adventure and drama in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, Howard Pyle, and Rudyard Kipling. In fact, his stories have such universal themes that they almost seem to exist outside of a time frame.

  Often Morpurgo accomplishes this by removing his main characters completely from their everyday lives, and from civilization itself. In Running Wild, the main character is carried by a stampeding elephant into the jungle. Dazed and disoriented, nine-year-old Will must adapt and find ways to survive for months on his own.

  Away from any modern trappings, this story could have taken place at any time in the past 200 years, but it is actually set in modern Indonesia. The event that causes the elephant to stampede is the approaching tsunami that in reality caused such devastation in 2004. Morpurgo read news accounts of the sea pulling back from the land as the wave approached, and of animals sensing danger well before humans and breaking free of restraints to flee the shore. He began to wonder… what if someone was riding an elephant when that happened? And Running Wild was born.

  Kensuke’s Kingdom accomplishes this same sense of isolation when 11-year old Michael is tossed overboard from his parents’ sailboat and washes up on a seemingly deserted island. It quickly becomes apparent that someone else is on the island and is willing to give Michael just enough help to keep him alive, but who wants no direct contact whatsoever. The identity of the mysterious stranger, and the relationship that eventually develops, leads to an emotionally rich story reminiscent of Theodore Taylor’s 1969 classic, The Cay.

  Kensuke’s Kingdom, as well as War Horse and Private Peaceful, touch on another theme common in the author’s works: the senselessness and brutality of war. Kensuke’s Kingdom, though a contemporary story, heavily references World War II. War Horse and Private Peaceful are set during World War I, an era often overlooked in fiction. Check with your local library for availability of these and other titles by Michael Morpurgo. For a complete list of over 120 books by this author and more information about him, visit www.michaelmorpurgo.org.

 

 

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