Newcastle University awards Michael Morpurgo honorary degree

Today, Newcastle University has made Michael Morpurgo an Honorary Doctor of Letters for his outstanding achievements as a children’s author and supporter of children’s rights, and recognising his strong connections to the North East.

Michael Morpurgo received the honour as part of the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics’ Congregation ceremonies, where our undergraduates and postgraduates also celebrated their degree success.

Michael is a true champion of children’s books. In an award-winning writing career that has spanned 40 years, he has published over 150 books for children, including War Horse, Private Peaceful and Kensuke’s Kingdom. He was the third Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005, a scheme he helped to establish. In 2006, his services to children’s literature were recognised when he was awarded an OBE. Michael and his wife, Clare Morpurgo, are also the founders of Farms for City Children, a charity which has now offered over 100,000 children the opportunity to experience a working farm in the countryside.

Michael Morpurgo with Seven Stories' A Lifetime in Stories exhibition. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books, photography by Richard Kenworthy
Michael Morpurgo with Seven Stories’ A Lifetime in Stories exhibition. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Richard Kenworthy

Alongside his writing and charity work, the honorary degree also celebrates Michael’s links to Newcastle. He is a Patron of Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, and donated his entire archive to Seven Stories in 2015. This collection formed the basis for a major exhibition, Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories, as well as a learning and engagement programme, and was supported by an InnovateUK Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Newcastle University, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The exhibition was on display between July 2016 to July 2017 at Seven Stories and is now preparing for a national tour, beginning with the V&A Museum of Childhood, where it will run from 22nd July 2017 – 25th February 2018.

Michael Morpurgo, with items from his archive, at Seven Stories. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books, photography by Richard Kenworthy
Michael Morpurgo, with items from his archive, at Seven Stories. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Richard Kenworthy

In her citation, acting University Librarian, Jill Taylor-Roe, said: “Michael Morpurgo, who we are honouring today, is one of the finest storytellers of our generation.”

Michael Morpurgo accepted the award by saying: “I am delighted to receive this degree from Newcastle University’s School of English. What a huge honour and from a city that is home to the wonderful Seven Stories, who look after my archive and for which my wife Clare and I are joint Patrons. It feels a bit like coming home.”

You can watch the whole degree ceremony online. Jill Taylor-Roe’s citation begins at 31:10 with Michael’s response running from 40:48 to 52:14.

Congratulations, Dr Morpurgo! And well done to all Newcastle University students graduating this summer.

Discovering home, heritage and history at Seven Stories

In this guest post, Dr Lucy Pearson, Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics and Gavin Hetherington, a BA English Literature with Creative Writing student, reflect on the third year students’ visit to Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books in October.

Dr Lucy Pearson

My third-year module ‘Home, Heritage, History’ asks students to think about these three themes in the children’s books of the twentieth century, and to think about how English Literature might use archives and museums. This module evolved from my close working relationship with Seven Stories – I’m taking full advantage of having a heritage organisation devoted exclusively to children’s literature right on our doorstep! One of the highlights of my teaching year is the module field trip to Seven Stories, and this year’s trip was extra special.

The team at Seven Stories stayed on after hours to give my students exclusive access to the Seven Stories Visitor Centre in the Ouseburn Valley. The Collections Team brought along some archive material for students to have a closer look at: we explored some of Helen Craig’s original artwork for Angelina Ballerina, looked at some of Robert Westall’s correspondence and his manuscript drafts of The Machine Gunners, and investigated the creation of Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Borrowers through correspondence, artwork, and drafts. Mary Norton’s letter to her illustrator Diana Stanley in which she writes about the horror of the blank page when starting a new work struck a chord with us all! It’s a special feeling to handle the original material and see authors’ false starts, crossings out and uncertainties.

Dr Jessica Medhurst gave the students a guided tour. Image: Newcastle University
Dr Jessica Medhurst gave the students a guided tour. Image: Newcastle University

Students also had a chance to explore the galleries and think about how Seven Stories shares our heritage of children’s literature with the public. This was especially exciting this year because our KTP Research Associate Jessica Medhurst came along to give students a tour of Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories and talk about the ideas behind the exhibition. Jessica has been working closely with the Seven Stories exhibitions team and conducting research to support their development of the exhibition, so she knows everything there is to know about the Morpurgo exhibition. The exhibition theme of storytelling was especially interesting to members of the group who are also creative writers: student Gavin Hetherington gives his account below.

In the Rhyme Around the World exhibition, Storycatcher Lawrence gave students a taste of the experience regular visitors to Seven Stories can enjoy – and they had some fun exploring the interactive aspects of the exhibition!

Interacting with the exhibitions. Image: Newcastle University

We finished the evening with a quiz, where students showed an expert knowledge of children’s books (and a healthy competitive streak!)

If you’re envious of the students’ exclusive access to Seven Stories, it’s not too late to sign up for our Being Human event on 24th November, which will offer all the fun the students enjoyed plus a little bit more.

Gavin Hetherington

As a creative writer, visiting Seven Stories was not only educational, but also inspirational. The biggest part of this children’s literature archive is that they have acquired original materials from iconic authors in order to preserve and protect them from being shipped elsewhere. In doing so, this material is available to be admired, ensuring that visitors can always walk away with something from the experience.

Students exploring the Michael Morpurgo exhibition. Image: Newcastle University
Students exploring the Michael Morpurgo exhibition. Image: Newcastle University

To go from Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Dreamtime’ in his exhibition, to the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – a short walk away – shows how deeply connected every part of his writing process is, from his creative ideas whilst walking through the pastoral, to the illustrators that have collaborated on his work, boasting watercolour paintings that reflect some part of his stories. We are submerged in his mind and are able to interact with the pieces that make up his imagination, and it spills over into the visitors’ reality. Morpurgo himself, in a very cosy setting of a shed and a recording of the famed author speaking directly to us, said that we should ‘fill our heads with this world of which you are a part’ and that, for us creative writers, it is not ‘magic’ that conjured the words we seek to write, but ourselves, as we write the story we truly believe in, from our minds to the paper before us.

I could not help but be fascinated as Morpurgo himself comes to life, as do the other writers who have created such timeless children’s stories, with the manuscript of The Borrowers and the facsimile of Tom’s Midnight Garden. These personal objects reveal the process of their writing, that the finished product we all cherish began in a way that the creative writer can relate, and thus helps us to aspire to be like them. The exhibits in Seven Stories humanises the writers, shows us the processes of their hard work and how they each used their own modes of magic to bring their stories to life.

A first year and a first blog post

We’re now officially one year into our funding for the Vital North Partnership between Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books and Newcastle University. I thought this blog would be a good way to review what’s gone on over the past year…

The Vital North Partnership begins

The start of 2015 saw Newcastle University’s REF Impact Case Study about the Children’s Literature Unit’s work with Seven Stories receive a 4* grading, leading to the School of English ranking first in the UK for research impact.

This was fantastic recognition of our collaboration over the last 10 years, and led Seven Stories (with Newcastle University’s support) to make a Museum Resilience Fund bid to Arts Council England. This was for the Vital North Partnership, a project with the following aims:

  • To strengthen and scale-up Seven Stories’ partnership with Newcastle University
  • To build Seven Stories’ brand recognition and reach and develop new income streams
  • To secure a sustainable business model for Seven Stories as the national home for children’s books

We were delighted to be awarded funding, and the Vital North Partnership began…

From 2015 to 2016

It’s been a busy first year. Here are some of the highlights!

  • We were granted funding from AHRC and Innovate UK for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership between the School of English Literature, Language and Lingusitics and Seven Stories’ Collections and Exhibitions team.
  • We recruited a Vital North Partnership Manager (me!) to facilitate the project. I started in post in January 2016.
  • Seven Stories’ exclusive Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories exhibition opened, supported by the KTP. The Vital North Partnership also supported a sell-out Christmas concert with Michael at St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, On Angel Wings.
  • We offered 4 joint public talks on children’s literature with expert Brian Alderson, and author Garth Nix.
  • Seven Stories’ Living Books project is ongoing: this is a development programme for early years settings and parents to share and enjoy books with young children. Newcastle University’s Centre for Learning and Teaching are helping to evaluate this project.
Living Books workshop
Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books
Journey to Jo'burg performance
Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books
  • Seven Stories and Newcastle University hosted Leverhulme Visiting Professor Karen Sands O’Connor from Buffalo State University. Karen spent her time here looking at race and diversity in the Seven Stories collection.
  • We jointly offered four David Almond Fellowships to support postgraduates and early career researchers to come and consult the Seven Stories collection.
  • Newcastle University students from the BA in English Literature and BA in Education visited Seven Stories as part of their course, and I gave a seminar on Seven Stories and reading for pleasure for the Educational Psychology doctoral trainees
  • Seven Stories have also been supporting student employability by offering placements: we’ve supported an undergraduate Research Scholarship with Speech and Language Sciences  and we’re currently hosting a Santander University Internship.


What’s next?

Now I’ve been in post for 8 months, things are really gathering pace. There are lots of projects in the pipeline and I’m planning to share activities as they happen via this blog. If you’d like more information about anything you’ve read about here, get in touch!

Between now and Christmas, I’ll be posting about opportunities through the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership, sharing a Pecha Kucha I gave at the AHRC Common Ground event earlier in the summer about the Vital North Partnership and quizzing Research Associate Dr. Jessica Medhurst about all things KTP.

So a first year, and a first blog post. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next year has in store…