I’ve been surprised to hear that many of my friends who saw War Horse—the play on Broadway or the new Steven Spielberg film—did not know that both were based on a wonderful novel by Michael Morpurgo. For some reason, Morpurgo, who was the Children’s Laureate of the UK, is not that well-known in the states. He has written dozens of children’s books, which are extremely popular in the UK, and indeed, worldwide. Some, like It’s a Dog’s Life and The Butterfly Lion, are geared to early readers. War Horse is one of his several fine young-adult novels.
The story is of Joey, a Devon farm horse, who is drafted into World War I, and Albert, the boy who enlists and vows to find his horse. Morpurgo did not want the book to be partisan, so Joey ends up working in turn on the British and the German sides. We see the humanity, kindness, and brutality of both. Morpurgo paints a picture of how WWI impacted civilians as well as soldiers. The book holds close to historical details, with the new agonies of trench warfare, machine guns, and gas. There’s a moving scene of Joey getting caught in no-man’s-land between the fronts, and also Albert fights in the pivotal Second Battle of the Somme. Morpurgo brilliantly invokes the foolhardy, specious, “charge-of-the-light-brigade” gallantry that would send a cavalry into battle against modern heavy artillery. Whether he is writing about people or animals, Morpurgo creates memorable characters. I particularly loved the gruff but noble workhorse Topthorn.
Another book by Morpurgo that I strongly recommend is Private Peaceful. Also set during WWI, it is an affectionate and wrenching story about Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful and his brother Charlie, who become soldiers together.
After their father is killed in an accident, the two brothers struggle to help their mother keep the family together, now that they no longer have claim to the tenant farm where they live. Morpurgo highlights the resolute and capricious power that the landed gentry had over their laborers—an authority that ultimately forces the brothers off to war at an early age. This class conflict is mirrored by the brutish behavior of some of the officers in the trenches. Again with attention to historical accuracy, Morpurgo focuses on a lesser-known, barbaric injustice faced by many of the rank-and-file soldiers in the British army in the early 20th-century.
The book is told in flashbacks by Tommo, who lied about his age so he could go along when his older brother was drafted. “They’ve gone now, and I’m alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won’t waste a single moment of it. I shan’t sleep it away. I won’t dream it away, either.” I was hooked from Tommo’s first line. Also, the pacing that alternated real-time with the past had me ripping through the pages. The countdown felt a bit like an episode of the TV show 24—with the suspense, and the sense of dread, compounding. I finished Private Peaceful in one sitting.
In addition to some lovely vignettes of life in the Devonshire countryside, there is also a charming, understated tween love triangle, which sparkled with the refreshing, best-friend dynamic of childhood romance. Though his books are targeted to young readers, Morpurgo insists they are “stories for everyone.” And I must say I am steadily plowing through them, relieved to find that he is so prolific.
Although the children’s book market has been booming, there is a lot of dodgy, poorly-written, mishmash out there—such as the hackneyed “kitten”, “rainbow”, and “weather” fairy series. And don’t get me started on the fad of celebrity children’s books. Ugh. Do you really want your kids reading this stuff?
Parents looking for quality, compelling books for their children should browse the virtual bookshelf on Morpurgo’s website. Not only are his many books beautifully-crafted with wonderful characters (there are lots of animals and there’s lots of history), but these books are downright satisfying page-turners … for readers of any age.