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Morpurgo on the love of story

26 September 2016

Bestselling children's author Michael Morpurgo has savaged school reading culture by attacking the over-testing of children at school and saying it is sucking the joy from reading and putting weak readers off for life.

Morpurgo is one of the most celebrated of contemporary children's writers and his opinions are likely to be listened to. He is the author most recently of An Eagle in the Snow but best known for the celebrated Private Peaceful and for War Horse, the play and film versions of which have been rapturously received internationally.

On his inspiring website he writes:

‘For me the greater part of writing is daydreaming, dreaming the story of my dream until it hatches out - the writing down of it I always find hard. But I love finishing it, then holding the book in my hand and sharing the dream with my readers.'

In an argument which will be supported by many children's writers, as well as parents and teachers, he also emphasises the importance of stories to children's development:

‘Stories make you think and dream, books make you want to ask questions.'

During the inaugural BookTrust Lecture, the former UK Children's Laureate called for the return of an untested and unstressed Storytime at close of the day in primary schools. He thinks that the teaching of reading in schools can take the wonder out of stories and turn them into a subject for comprehension tests, handwriting tests and grammar tests in which at least as many children fail as succeed, leading children to give up.

‘You disappoint yourself, disappoint others. You give up. I gave up. To give up on books is to give up on education, and if you give up on education, then you can so easily give up on hope... So many avenues barred, so many possibilities never imagined, so many discoveries never made, so much understanding of yourself, of others, stunted forever.'

He says every primary school should reinstate Storytime at the end of every school day, and make it: ‘a special time, a fun time, devoted entirely to reading, to writing, to storytelling, to drama. No testing, no comprehension, no analysis, no interrogation. Let the children go home dreaming of the story, reliving it, wondering. All that matters at that early age is that they learn to love it, that they want to listen to more stories, read them, tell them, write them, act them out, sing them, dance them. All the rest will come later, the literacy side of things, which is important, once that seed is sown. Children have to want to learn. So give them the love of story first; the rest will follow.'

Morpurgo pointed to ‘an apartheid system of a kind in this country, between haves and have-not children, between those who read, who through books, through developing an enjoyment of literature, can have the opportunity to access the considerable cultural and material benefits of our society; and those who were made to feel very early on that the world of words, of books, of stories, of ideas, was not for them, that they were not clever enough to join that world, that it was not the world they belonged to, that it was shut off from them for ever.

‘Our prisons are full of them, full of those we have failed. Many remain lonely and marginalised all their lives. The right book, the right author, the right parent, the right teacher, the right librarian, at the right time, might have saved some of them at least, made the difference, shone a light into a dark life, turned that life around.'