This month, Seven Stories is celebrating the donation of Michael Morpurgo’s archive and the announcement of the forthcoming Morpurgo retrospective exhibition, which will open on 1st July 2016.  To help inform the exhibition the  museum has teamed up with Newcastle University to appoint a Research Associate, funded through the Knowledge Transfer Partnership scheme– the first appointment of its kind in the field of literature.  In this blog, the KTP Research Associate, Dr Jessica Sage, introduces the Morpurgo collection and gives a sneak preview of her research.

I was delighted to join Seven Stories the National Centre for Children’s Books in September, not least because the KTP Research Associate post offers me the chance to work on an as yet unseen collection: Michael Morpurgo’s papers, which were donated in May of this year.

Later typescript draft of War Horse annotated by Michael Morpurgo with a first edition copy of the book

My research is exploring Morpurgo’s published and unpublished works, including a large pile of orange notebooks in which many of his famous novels were first drafted, as well as early adaptations of War Horse and material from his early life.  I’ll be considering the ways in which his works fits in with, and sometimes goes against, traditions in children’s literature and I’m interested in thinking closely about what kinds of childhood we can read in Morpurgo’s work, particularly in relation to the places and spaces he constructs such as the Scilly Isles, Devon and further afield in novels like Kensuke’s Kingdom and Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea.  I’m also hoping to do some work on the human-animal relationship that characterises many of his books, such as The Butterfly Lion, Why the Whales Came and The Dancing Bear.  This will be no small job: Morpurgo has written more than 130 books and we’ve got some unpublished material in the collection too so there is plenty of reading to be done.

Morpurgo's early handwritten drafts in notebooks

Intriguingly, Morpurgo doesn’t think of himself as a writer but rather as a storyteller.  In Singing for Mrs Pettigrew he writes of his need to ‘allow the story time to find its own voice to weave itself, to dream itself out of my head’ (p26) and in her recent authorised biographyof him, Maggie Fergusson writes that ‘[h]e began as a classroom storyteller, and he has remained much more confident about the spoken than the written word’ (p315).  Ideas of storytelling also crop up in lots of his books: you might have read about Tomas and the librarian in I Believe in Unicorns, or the story Paulo Levi tells the journalist in The Mozart Question, or even the stories told about The Birdman in Why the Whales Came, which turn out not to be the whole truth. 

Many of the manuscripts donated as part of the collection also produce ideas of how stories are told, including the difficulties that even established authors like Morpurgo have: among the many orange notebooks is one for Kensuke’s Kingdom, the beginning of which is rewritten four times, with each attempt at beginning it slightly different and slightly longer than the last.  The first handwritten version has the lead character called Paul rather than Michael, puts his birthday as 6th February 1988 rather than 28thJuly 1988 and introduces a newspaper cutting headlined ‘Tragedy strikes round the world yachting family’, constructing a part of the story that happens in Paul/Michael’s absence, which is not present in the published version.

The first draft page for the beginning of Kensuke's Kingdom
Morpurgo re-drafted the beginning of Kensuke's Kingdom many times

Having this KTP funding means that I can spend time researching into this archive to inform the curation of the exhibition, led by Gill Rennie (Senior Curator), as well as to attract more adult audiences to the galleries, including researchers.  The collection often gets visits from students and academics who are interested in the manuscripts held at Seven Stories and we hope to be welcoming even more people to explore the gems held in the archive as well as in the children’s book collection; if you’re thinking of visiting you can find out more here.  I’ll be sharing some of my findings on the blog over the next nine months as the exhibition develops; if you’ve got any questions for me you can leave them in the comments section below.

Seven Stories was able to support the acquisition of David Fickling's archive through support from a Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant. This has been awarded to Seven Stories in recognition of the museum’s national role in telling a comprehensive story of modern British children’s literature. For more information on our HLF Collecting Cultures project see:

For More information on our KTP project with Newcastle University see here: