In this month's Inspirations, Gill James tells Words & Pictures how much the work of Michael Morpurgo inspired her own.

Which author has inspired me the most? That is a really difficult question to answer. There are so many. However, once I knew I wanted to write for children I got to know the works of Michael Morpurgo. I love his writing. He is a great storyteller and a very good writer. He is also a really nice man and an inspiring role model.


So I was very happy that the very first piece of fiction for children I had published appeared in the same book as a piece by Michael. Lines in the Sand, edited by Mary Hoffman and Rhiannon Lassiter, was produced as a protest by many writers against the war in Iraq. It is a collection of writings for children about war and peace. Royalties were donated to UNICEF. I was delighted to receive my copy, thrilled that the illustration they’d selected to go with it depicted a girl who looked exactly like my protagonist and horrified that they had missed a third of the story out.


Well, this was rectified in a subsequent reprinting. I had to sacrifice the beautiful picture but it meant everybody remembered me- including Michael. He has signed two editions of the book for me – one with the picture of the girl and one with my full story. Shortly after that I befriended the librarian at a comprehensive school where I taught. She was a wonderful librarian –  she read every single book in the library and her choices were amazing.


As we walked into a conference at Roehampton which Michael was chairing - it was all about war and the child so Lines in the Sand was an important work there - she suddenly said “Excuse me a minute. I just want to catch up with my friend form college.” She meant Michael! Well, at least he recognised me as well. As he did when he and Virginia McKenna performed his The Best Christmas Present in the World at the Lowry in Salford just before War Horse came there. So, no such thing as bad publicity?

I feel very privileged that he has also written the foreword for a collection of stories I have edited. Michael Morpurgo has influenced me in many ways. One of my great ambitions is that my writing should be as good as his. Not the same, of course, because no two writers can ever really be the same and if one attempts too much to write in the style of another the best they will achieve is a competent copy. I also would like to have as clear a message coming out in my work as there is in his and to touch people’s hearts as he does.


One of his more touching stories is Private Peaceful. A young soldier is court-marshalled and loses his life because he disobeys orders for very understandable reasons. I’ve seen this made into a play and was astounded and really pleased at how a young audience understood the emotions and moral issues it raised. 

For people new to writing and new to his work I have to recommend Singing for Mrs Pettigrew. This is autobiography told through a series of anecdotes. This shows both Michael Morpurgo’s own story as a writer and also how good stories are written.


Sometimes I’ve wondered whether he is really a writer for children at all. His prose is quite sophisticated. I love his work because I am a writer and can see that he does this well. Is he really writing for adults? Many adults do enjoy his work. But then I remember that he became a writer because he told such wonderful stories to the children he used to teach. And I also see how young people flock to performances of Private Peaceful, War Horse and The Best Christmas Present Ever.


Photo courtesy of John Rice

Gill James writes novels and short fiction for children, adults and young adults. She is currently working on a cycle of novels set mainly in Nazi Germany, a science fiction series for young adults and occasional short stories and pieces of flash fiction. She is a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing at Salford University, where she formerly worked as a senior lecturer. She has published several academic papers. Reviews by Gill can be found in Armadillo Magazine, IBBY, Troubador and on her own web site. Gill has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing, thesis title: Peace Child, Towards a Global Definition of the Young Adult Novel. Before becoming a writer and an academic she taught modern languages for 23 years. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2001.


You can read Gill's blog here, find her on Twitter or Facebook.

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