Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Michael Morpurgo Archive

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 Medhurst, 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My research is exploring Morpurgo’s published and unpublished works, including a large pile of orange notebooks in which many of his famous novels were first drafted, as well as early adaptations of War Horse and material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  This will be no small job: Morpurgo has written more than 130 books and we’ve got some unpublished material in the collection too so there is plenty of reading to be done.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 biography of 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 28th July 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:

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Robert Westall’s North East

Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Machine Gunners and today would have been Robert Westall's 86th birthday.  To commemorate the occasion we thought we'd share a post from one of our volunteers.  Grace created a brilliant online resource for the Westall Collections which explores his connection to the North East. 

The first page of the first draft of Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners. Published 40 years ago, Westall won the 1975 Carnegie Prize for Machine Gunners.
I have been uncovering Robert Westall’s intriguing archive for a project with Newcastle University. This project’s aim was to highlight the archive and make it even more accessible through a digital platform. Each member of the project simply had to pick an archive to publish online. As a student at Newcastle University studying an MLitt specialising in children’s literature, as well as a volunteer at Seven Stories archives, I knew where I would look for material…

I chose to work with Robert Westall’s archive, the first archive to call Seven Stories home, not only because visually it is very aesthetic (gorgeous handwriting, entertaining notes and doodles…) but because I felt his unpublished personal writing was, quite frankly, stunning. He wrote in large sketchbooks about his home county, Northumberland, in such an honest and poetic manner that I felt it was a resource worth making more accessible to the public. His children’s books often feature the North East, The Machine Gunners (1975) is set in Garmouth (a fictional town based upon Tyneside) and The Kingdom by the Sea (1990) follows a young boy as he travels up the coast too. In his published works the North East is a solid setting, it creates the backdrop to his dramatic tales and it defines the dialects of the characters. However, in his unpublished works, we see the North East as Westall saw it, with pride of place as the focus of his writing.

Westall wrote;

If you attempt to drive up the coast of Northumberland, something goes wrong after Seaton Sluice; twist and turn as you will, you get caught in a maze of spoil heaps, and roads cracked and patched after mining subsidence’.

He takes you on a journey through the seaside towns and villages, discussing the fishing traditions, the tourism trade and the mining past. His love of the North East is at times at odds with his sadness over the changes that are taking over and changing his childhood landscape.

Selection of notes about the North East of England in the Robert Westall Collection

I photographed the sketchbooks and created a website to display each page separately. If you click on one of the items, scroll past the item information, you can click on the selected page and zoom in on each one individually, reading every word he has written. Whilst it is not quite as fun as trooping to Newcastle and digging into the Seven Stories Archive yourself, it is not a bad way of accessing a quietly, fascinating collection. Westall recalls his childhood home, a landscape which despite causing him grief through the inevitable changes happening to the traditions of the communities, was also given a significant presence in children’s literature due to his work.

- Grace Owens

If you'd like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collection, then 
email: or phone: 0191 495 2707 or comment on this blog.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

All About: Lions

This month our feature animal is the majestic lion. An ever popular animal in children's literature, especially for younger readers who may enjoy 'roaring' along with the pictures! This month again we will take a look at an illustration, archival item and a book to explore three very different elements of our collection.

Illustration by Robert Ingpen for 'The Lion and the Unicorn', Over the Hills and Far Away, collected by Elizabeth Hammill (Francis Lincoln, 2014)
Our first example this month is this beautiful work from the Australian illustrator Robert Ingpen. Currently on display in our Rhyme Around the World exhibition (click here to find out more and how to visit), this artwork is executed in graphite pencil, acrylic paint and pastel. It is just one of the many different contributions from 77 different illustrators, collected together by co-founder of Seven Stories, Elizabeth Hammill. 

Elizabeth chose nursery rhymes from around the English speaking world, and presented them together in one volume, with fantastic, newly commissioned illustrations. This particular artwork was one of two submitted by Ingpen, and is the one that was used in the final book. The other work, for 'Humpy Dumpty' unfortunately didn't fit within the book's structure, as there was a limit of maximum one double spread per illustrator. If you look very closely, you can also see that Ingpen has included Hammill's name in the illustration - 'Hammill's Breads and Cakes'.

The illustration is for the very well known English rhyme 'The Lion and the Unicorn'.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All round about the town.

Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
And drummed them out of town.

The first written record of the rhyme is in 1709, shortly after the Act of Union between the English and Scottish parliaments and the formation of 'Great Britain'. It is possible that the rhyme refers to fights between the lion (England) and the unicorn (Scotland) - the royal coat of arms having been amalgamated earlier in the seventeenth century to show both beasts after the crowning of the Scottish King James I as King of England.

To buy a copy of this book, with all proceeds going towards supporting Seven Stories, National Centre for Children's Books, click here.

Typescript for The Prince Who Walked with Lions by Elizabeth Laird, (Macmillan, 2012)
This month's example of archival material is taken from Elizabeth Laird's The Prince Who Walked with Lions. The story takes place in a location Laird has often returned to in her work, Abyssinia - modern day Ethiopia, having lived, worked and travelled there extensively. It is based on the true story of the young prince Alamayu, whose father has been murdered by the British Army. Set in 1868, during the Abyssinia Campaign, Alamayu is taken by the British back to England, and sent to boarding school there. 

The section shown in the image above is taken from the printed typescript, the archive also holds an earlier hand written manuscript, written predominantly on the back of printed correspondence, research and typescripts for other books. In the pictured section, close to the end of the book, Alamayu has a very moving meeting with a caged lion, part of a travelling 'menagerie' that has come by his school, and he feels a strong connection to this symbol of his home.

'His smell took hold in my nostrils. I breathed in deeply that rich, long-forgotten mustiness of lion.'
Extract from The Prince Who Walked with Lions

The Elizabeth Laird Collection, donated by the author in 2012, consists of draft material and correspondence relating to 25 of her published novels for children, including the Carnegie nominated Secret Friends, Jake's Tower, The Garbage King and Crusade. There are also re-tellings of traditional stories and anthologies edited by Laird, material relating to the British Council project collecting traditional stories in Ethiopia and a small quantity of personal papers. 

To find out more about Laird's work in Ethiopia, or to explore The Ethiopian Story Collecting Project set up by the Ethiopian Ministry of Education and the British Council, click here and here.

This month’s featured books are copies of Disney’s The Lion King in a variety of editions, which were all published by Ladybird Books to tie-in with the American animated musical film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation, and released by Walt Disney Pictures on June 15, 1994.

The Lion King is the story of Simba, a young lion who is to succeed his father, Mufasa, as king.  However, after Simba's uncle Scar murders Mufasa, Simba is manipulated into thinking he was responsible and flees into exile in shame and despair. Throughout his childhood, Simba is given some valuable perspective by his friends, and his shaman, Rafiki, and once he’s grown-up he returns to challenge Scar to end his tyranny.

The film has led to many derived works, including a Broadway adaptation, a sequel The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (in 1998) and of course, a whole host of film tie-in books, as above! These illustrate the brilliance of Ladybird books in producing multiple formats of the same title, aimed at a variety of audiences in terms of reading ability (length of text, quantity of illustrations, and level of activity) and at a range of affordable prices for different pockets. There is a film tie-in book for everyone!

These six books are from our Ladybird Books Collection. This collection was donated to Seven Stories after the publisher Pearson decided to fully merge Ladybird into its Penguin Books subsidiary, and the Ladybird offices and printing factory in Loughborough were closed. This happened in 1998, and much of the company's archive of historic artwork was also transferred to public collections at the same time.

Our Ladybird collection consists of over 2,000 books and includes more than 1,500 books in the traditional Ladybird format, more than 200 ‘Disney’ related books, and about 250 items in a variety of other formats including: bath, cloth and board books; activity, sticker, and colouring books; cassette tape and book packs; and even friezes.

If you'd like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collection, then 
email: or phone: 0191 495 2707 or comment on this blog.