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The World Writ Small

British Author Michael Morpurgo's Books for Children Pose Questions Rather Than Answer Them. Does His Success Blending History and Harsh Reality Suggest Kids Don't Always Need Happy Endings?

November 24, 2002|MARJORIE MILLER | Marjorie Miller is the foreign editor of The Times.

After a day of milking cows and shoveling manure, three dozen fifth-graders dressed in fleece pajamas and terry robes clamber into the living room of Michael Morpurgo's Devon farmhouse for a bedtime story. The British author pulls out a volume that he says they cannot possibly have read because it isn't published yet, and the students smile with delight. Not only have they escaped their parents and school for a week in his "Farms for City Children" program, but they are about to get a preview of a Morpurgo book, which makes them terribly cool.

"It's the best title of any book I have written--'Cool!' " Morpurgo tells the 10- and 11-year-olds seated on the carpet by a Victorian fireplace. "It's a word I really, really hate that my granddaughters use all the time: cool."

The children giggle, knowing that they, too, abuse the word. They settle down quickly, however, when they hear that "Cool!" is not a breezy, upbeat book, but the story of a boy who has fallen into a coma after being hit by a car. Robbie Ainsley can hear his parents and friends trying desperately to draw him out, but he is unable to speak or to move. He cannot acknowledge their declarations of love and friendship or reciprocate them. He can't even utter his usual seal of approval--cool.

"My stepfather died last year and before he died, he was in a coma," Morpurgo tells his audience. "I used to just sit by his bed in the hospital until one day the doctor told me to talk to him. I said, 'What's the point?' and he said that we don't know, but that enough people have woken up after a long coma and said they had heard people talking to them. I tried but he died several months later."

The experience, however, gave Morpurgo the idea for the book about a boy locked in a coma with his thoughts. "It's what it is like to be inside of his head," he says.

Morpurgo, the 58-year-old author of more than 90 children's books, often takes his readers "inside the head" of people whom they would not ordinarily meet, and to places they would not normally go. He is a teller of ancient tales and an adventure writer who matter-of-factly addresses difficult subjects such as sickness and death. "Waiting for Anya" is the story of an occupied French village's efforts to smuggle Jewish children across the border to safety in Spain during World War II. "The War of Jenkins' Ear" examines faith and superstition through the boarding school friendship between a young boy and an older student claiming to be Jesus Christ. And in "The Ghost of Grania O'Malley," a girl grapples with cerebral palsy while her cousin confronts his own father's life-threatening illness.

With the first chapter of "Cool!," Morpurgo's bedtime audience is spellbound by a mixture of humor and drama, by references to Dr. Smelly Breath and the more serious thoughts of a boy who can't move his body. "I remember thinking in the ambulance, 'Maybe I am dead,' " Morpurgo reads in a convincingly boyish voice. He pauses at the end of the chapter, then teases, "Do you want another chapter?"

"Yes-s-s," the kids cry in unison. They're hooked.

In an age when J.K. Rowling novels dominate bestseller lists by plunging young readers into fantastic realms, Morpurgo continues to infuse his books with what some consider inappropriate in children's literature--geography, history and large doses of reality. He believes children are simply small adults, less experienced but no less intelligent than grown-ups, who should be exposed to life's difficulties along with its pleasures.

He is not alone in this. His compatriot Jacqueline Wilson does it as well, and sometimes with more emotional depth. But besides offering up reality, Morpurgo immerses readers in stories that draw from the past. Characters such as Joan of Arc and King Arthur figure prominently in his works, which he has set against the Spanish Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Irish potato famine.

His "War Horse" is about an animal that leaves the farm to join the British cavalry in World War I only to be captured by the enemy. In "Twist of Gold," an Irish brother and sister bid their starving mother goodbye to search for their father, who has gone to America looking for work. And the compelling hero of "Kensuke's Kingdom," due to be published in the United States by Scholastic Press next spring, is a Japanese survivor of the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki during WWII.

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