Sunday, 22 April 2018

Michael Murpurgo Month

Welcome to the Children’s section of Te Takere’s Library blog, which is expanding to include the wonderful selection of fiction available for the children of the Horowhenua.  There are so many cool titles for kids here thanks to our great buyer librarians that they definitely deserve their very own section:  just as adults can access fiction choices on this blog, now, thanks to JD’s website expertise, children will also have the same ability to pick and choose.
First up as a five-star recommendation is  ‘The Elephant in the Garden’by British children’s author Michael Morpurgo.  He needs no introduction;  his stories have delighted, enthralled and moved kids of all ages, and he is always careful to get his facts right – his writing is always objective and his research impeccable.  Many of his books are set in times of war, written without specific blame for one side or the other;  rather, their stories demonstrate the futility and heartbreak of conflict and its terrible consequences – but they always have happy and hopeful endings, for no child should finish a book and feel sad. 
The following books reviewed are most suitable for ages 10 years and up.  (And really keen and clever eight year-olds!)

An Elephant in the Garden, by Michael Morpurgo.
            Karl’s mum is a nurse who works in a Rest Home.  She enjoys her work;  even though a lot of her patients are very old and nearing the end of their lives, they are all still interesting and unique people who deserve her care and respect.  Such a person is Elizabeth, who is 82 years old and swears that when she was sixteen, an elephant lived in her garden! 
            Karl’s mum rolls her eyes at this;  it is a favourite chant of Elizabeth’s and the old lady wants to tell Karl all about it – she has taken a great fancy to him, for sometimes he has to come to the rest home when mum works in the school holidays, and he likes to sit with her.  She says he reminds her of her little brother Karli, and Karl is very flattered, and even more so when he and his mum when her shift has ended, finally have the time to sit next to Elizabeth’s bed and hear her wonderful, terrible, unbelievable story:  an elephant really did stay in Elizabeth’s garden, an elephant called Marlene.
            It is February of 1945.  In the city of Dresden in Germany people are feeling lucky but scared:  so far the British bombers have left their city alone but the people know that this enchanted time cannot last;  the war is coming to an end and Germany is on its knees – the Russians are approaching from the East and the Americans are moving in from the West.  Everyone is making plans to flee, including Elizabeth’s mother, who works at the local Zoo.  Elizabeth’s Papa is a prisoner of war in Russia, and her Mutti hopes to find shelter at her sister’s farm in the country outside Dresden if bombs start to fall.  Mutti hopes also to rescue her very favourite animal from the Zoo, a young 4-year-old elephant named for sultry movie star Marlene Dietrich;  Mutti was there at her birth and can’t bear the thought that she will be shot along with all the other zoo animals if the bombers come.  Well, Marlene can come along with Mutti, Elizabeth and Karli, so there!  Mutti has lost so much already;  she’s not leaving Marlene behind if they have to become refugees.  The decision is made.
            And it happens more quickly and brutally than they can imagine;  the bombers do come, turning the beautiful city into a fireball;  tens of thousands of people die and the bombing of Dresden becomes known as one of the Second World War’s worst atrocities – but miraculously, Elizabeth, Mutti, Karli and Marlene escape the horror and eventually join the miles of refugees leaving the ruins of their lives, homes and dreams behind. 
            On their long, hazardous trip to safety they meet many people, some dangerous and some so kind and generous that they put their own lives at risk to help each other, but all of them fascinated and cheered by refugee Marlene, the last creature anyone would expect to see on their exhausting life-and-death march:  Marlene is a beacon for hope and happiness in a blighted world, a talisman to prove that people’s luck can always change for the better, and who better to write of this than Michael Morpurgo.  FIVE STARS.
Shadow, by Michael Morpurgo                        Junior Fiction

This is the third book I have read by Mr Morpurgo and he impresses me as much as ever:  in each book is a lesson for children,  couched lovingly in an adventure which is always based on fact -  both the lesson and fact being that war anywhere in the world is The Great Destroyer, a vain conflict that decimates populations and ruins countries, and wars fought in the name of religion are the worst of all, for religious fanatics are always absolute in their belief that their cause is just, righteous – and the only way to live.  Everyone must follow the Way, or die.
Aman and his mother are living in a cave in Afghanistan.  They have been driven from their home by the Taliban who murdered Aman’s father for not being properly respectful, and they lead a hand-to-mouth existence. When a shivering, wounded, filthy little dog arrives at the mouth of their cave one night Aman’s mother tries to drive it away – they don’t have enough food for themselves, let alone a mangy animal! 
But the dog won’t leave.  She stays just out of the range of missiles lobbed at her and gradually Aman comes to admire her determination to be friends.  He sneaks food to her, bathes her wounds and a true friendship is formed, and it is the dog  Aman names Shadow who eventually leads them away from the danger of the Taliban, and after a series of frightening adventures, to the safety of a British Army base hundreds of miles from where they started – for Shadow is really Polly, a very special dog indeed, trained to sniff out IED’s – Improvised Explosive Devices – and the troops, particularly her owner Sergeant Brodie are overjoyed to see her again:  she went missing after a skirmish and they thought she had died – it is truly miraculous that she has found her way back to the base, bringing two refugees with her.
There are many facets to this lovely story, not least being the plight of refugees, not only in their own country, but the uncertainties they face of a new existence in their country of choice, in this case Britain, for Aman’s mother has a brother to sponsor them on their arrival.  Aman attends school for six years, making many friends before he and his mother are finally refused residential status, then sent to a detention camp before deportation to Afghanistan.  Mr Morpurgo pulls no punches: he writes baldly of the lack of humane treatment for refugees caught in the limbo of red tape and disinterest at immigration removal centres;  once again this fact is shamefully stranger than fiction but fortunately for young readers (and me!) Aman’s story ends happily.  Friends old and new rally to help him, including Shadow, and once again Mr Morpurgo has written a heartwarming story for us all to enjoy.  FIVE STARS.

Little Manfred, by Michael Morpurgo             Children’s fiction
To most children, Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction;  he has a great body of quality work for young people which covers many different subjects, and his book ‘War Horse’ about a young man’s wonderful relationship with his horse during the 1914-18 war was filmed to much acclaim by Steven Spielberg.  Now, he visits another war, World War II, to examine once again, through the eyes of the very young and the elderly, the horrors and tragedies of a global conflict, searing and traumatic for all those who fought and a source of unforgettable memories and regrets for those who survived.
It is 1966.  England has just won the World Soccer Cup, defeating Germany 4-2;  the country is ecstatic!  On their Suffolk farm, Charley and her mother cannot understand what the fuss is about;  neither of them share Dad and Alex’s worshipful enthusiasm of the Beautiful Game and really couldn’t care less WHO won.  Needless to say little brother Alex thinks his sister is just being a big GIRL.  She doesn’t know what’s good.  Instead, Charley and her mum would rather that Dad would do as he said he would, and fix mum’s old childhood toy, a small wooden Dachsund called Little Manfred, which he stood on and broke – and always said he’d repair but never did.  For some reason that she never reveals, Little Manfred is very important to mum, and she is very upset that her old toy is missing a wheel.
It is not until the children visit the beach not far from their farm that many little mysteries are solved:  they meet two elderly men, an Englishman and a German, sightseers who have returned so that one of them can see once more where he was a prisoner of war, working on the very farm that Charley and Alex’s mum lived with her parents twenty years before, and where she still lives with her husband and family. 
Walter, the German, was rescued by Marty, the Englishman when his ship, the mighty battleship ‘Bismarck’ was sunk by the British navy in a huge sea battle;  Marty’s ship, HMS ‘Dorsetshire’ picked up some of the survivors from the water but nearly 2000 men drowned, abandoned to their fate because there were rumours that U-Boats with torpedoes were in the area.
Walter’s best friend Manfred and he formed a bond with Marty, who showed them kindness in many ways , but the steadfast friendship of Manfred and Walter sustained them throughout their imprisonment, and the kindness shown to them by the farming family they were sent to made their lives more bearable;  in fact Manfred became so close to their little girl that he made her a wooden toy, a Dachsund, so that she could remember them when they returned to Germany.
Twenty years later, the toy is still with her, broken but not discarded, a symbol of love, friendship and understanding that transcended fear and hatred in the midst of war. 
What a lovely story this is, simply told but full of wisdom and life lessons that we could all live by, young and old alike.  Little Manfred was truly the gift that kept on giving.  FIVE STARS.

WarHorse, by Michael Morpurgo

Children’s author Michael Morpurgo is one of the most prolific and gifted storytellers in print.  He writes on a multitude of different subjects, and for children of all ages.  (Including me!)
‘WarHorse’, his classic tale of the First World War, was published in 1982 and subsequently dramatized on the stage and in a fine movie directed by Stephen Spielberg. 
The story of Joey, a rich red bay with four white socks and a white ‘cross’ on his forehead is told by Joey himself, three parts thoroughbred and one part farmhorse, from the time he is bought by Farmer Endicott in a drunken bid to spite someone he hated, to the time he is sold as a cavalry horse to an army captain in 1914, because the farmer needed the money - ‘ a man’s got to live’- despite the fact that his son Albert loved Joey and had trained him to pull a plough and earn his keep:  Endicott’s betrayal is so underhand and shocking that Albert vows to join the army as soon as he is old enough so that he can find Joey and bring him back to England and the safety of his former life.  It is a promise he keeps, joining the Veterinary force at age 17, still in time to witness first-hand the bloodbath on the battlefields of Northern France:  boys become men overnight – and horses share strange allegiances and frightening adventures, as Joey relates with vigour and poignancy.
This is a wonderful story – beautiful and terrible, an object lesson for all in the brutality and futility of war and how it deprived millions on both sides of everything they held dear, in the end accomplishing very little.  How fortunate, though, that we have writers of the calibre of Mr Morpurgo who are unafraid to write of such things for children, for children are our future, and should know of the terrible mistakes their forbears made.  FIVE STARS

The Fox and the Ghost King by Michael Morpurgo

            The fans of Leicester City football club (and it’s really well supported) are the most loyal ever;  they call themselves The Foxes, and believe that even though their team is pretty rubbish at the moment, a miracle can always happen and who knows?  They could even go all the way in the Premier League!  Yeah, right.  And pigs might fly, too. 
            BUT!  The fans have noticed that (strange as it may be) every now and then, a family of REAL foxes turn up at the football ground to watch the game.  (WHAAAAAT?!)  And every time they do, Leicester city wins.   It’s true, the team’s real live fox mascots seem to bring them luck – why, if those little critters keep turning up enough times, Leicester City might even get to the final!
            And according to one of the little fox cubs who tells the story (which he must have repeated to Michael Morpurgo), him, his brother and his dad were out fossicking for really good things to eat one night after being to the football grounds;  they trekked home through a big carpark that was being excavated by archaeologists looking for Medieval remains, and all those heaps of soil proved irresistible – full of bugs, worms and other creepy crawlies that round off a meal of pizza and pie crusts and chips from the big game very well:  what a good time they were having – until a ghostly voice interrupted their fun and commanded them to dig deeper so that his ghostly remains might be discovered.
Dad fox was not intimidated by the voice, even though the voice announced in booming tones that he was a King and expected instant obedience:  the voice wanted something, and while Dad fox was happy to help, he wasn’t going to work for nothing.  The King, who announced he was Richard the Third, wanted his remains to be discovered so that his spirit could finally rest in peace;  if the foxes could dig down far enough, the archaeologists would dig down too and eventually find him.  Dad fox and the two cubs didn’t mind obliging (the kids really liked digging!) but if the Ghost King was really who he said he was and was really as powerful as he reckoned he was , then surely he could arrange for Leicester City football team to get into the Premier League final.
            The deal is struck:  Dad and the kids start digging a hole so deep that it would be impossible for any archaeologist worth his spade to miss finding King Richard – and when the King is found, Leicester gives him a State Funeral and a proud resting place in Leicester Abbey, much more fitting than being buried under a car park!  And the Ghost King keeps his part of the bargain, too – Leicester City achieve the impossible and don’t just get into the final:  THEY WIN IT! 
            As always, Mr Morpurgo has woven gold out of extraordinary events – he never fails to enthrall.  Go the Foxes!  Suitable for really keen soccer fans  aged eight and up.  FOUR STARS 


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