With more than 100 children's books to his name, Michael Morpurgo has become one of the most prolific and beloved authors of his genre, often telling stories about conflict and extreme hardship that few of his literary peers would touch. His First World War parable, War Horse, is being developed for the screen by Steven Spielberg, but at 66 years old, the writer has just achieved another career landmark. His latest book sets its sights on a most unlikely subject - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Published in November, The Kites Are Flying! is set in a small town in the West Bank and tells the story of a western television reporter who strikes up a friendship with an eight-year-old Palestinian shepherd. The town has recently been divided by Israel's massive security barrier and it quickly becomes clear that the region's problems have had a devastating affect on the kite-flying boy, who has stopped speaking entirely.
As the reporter learns more about the child and his family, he uncovers details of a personal tragedy in the past that has left lives shattered on both sides of the wall. But despite the book's painful subject matter, it is uncynical, extremely moving and full of hope. "I decided it was time to write an optimistic story about that part of the world," says Morpurgo. "All that you hear is that [the situation] is impossible. Well, that's what they said about South Africa and Northern Ireland and it's not impossible. I'm firmly in the camp that it's the future we must plan for, because it's the children of the future that will put things right."
Although the book's themes of peace and understanding are typical of the author's body of work, its origin can be traced back to a single event more than a decade ago. Morpurgo visited Jordan on behalf of the British Council, to speak to the country's children about the joys of reading. But while addressing a group of youngsters, he was put on the spot by a girl of Palestinian origin. "She said she didn't want to ask a question, she wanted to tell me something," he recalls. "She felt that everyone in the West was hearing this story from the Israeli side of the equation and the Palestinian story was not being told. Then she said: 'You should tell it, shouldn't you?'"
Morpurgo began researching the region at length and went to his friend Jeremy Bowen, then the BBC's Middle East editor, for help understanding the conflict. But it was a report of a tragic real-life event that formed the basis of The Kites Are Flying! "I read somewhere of an incident where a Palestinian child had been shot while flying a kite," he says. "I don't know any more about the circumstances than that. It was a total mess. The image of a child doing the most innocent of all occupations and then being cut down began to prey on my mind and I knew it was a story that I needed to write."
At about the same time, the world became aware of Israel's plan to construct a wall across the divided territory. In the book, Morpurgo uses the character Max, a television reporter, to express his own feelings of disappointment that the barrier has been erected. "The whole of my youth was spent with the Berlin Wall dividing the world, and it horrified me that there was this other wall going up," he says. "I grew up in the era when the whole world was trying to blow each other up, and certainly across Europe. Now I can go to almost any other country in Europe without even having to show a passport and if we argue, we argue about sausages and things like that. We've done something remarkable and it proves that things do get better if you stop hating."
In fact, Morpurgo's youth was greatly affected by the Second World War. As an infant, he was evacuated from London to the safety of the countryside. When he returned after the war had ended the city was still scarred by the horrors of the Blitz, but the author also blames the war for the breakdown of his parents' marriage. "I suppose I was very influenced by the consequences of war in people's lives. I literally saw scenes of rubble, but also rubble in people's lives, because everyone's lives were full of pain and difficulty," he says. "It caused all sorts of ripples which still go on today. Wars never die with the people who die in them, they live on in the pain of the people who survive."
Although The Kites Are Flying! deals with complex themes and issues and its story is at times disturbing, the author says he has great confidence in the ability of children to deal with such material. Although less than three months old, the book is already being translated into several languages and Morpurgo says his "great ambition" is that it should be translated into both Arabic and Hebrew. "I have a lot of confidence in the abilities of young people," he says. "I'm of the view that the more you raise the level for children, the more they will reach up to that level and comprehend what you are doing. They don't want to be talked down to and there's no need to do it. They know the world is a complex place, they can see it and hear it in their own lives."
But although the response to The Kites Are Flying! from both the public and critics has been positive, the author says he has received "more stick from this book than any other". Not surprising, perhaps, given that for some commentators on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, the story has touched a raw nerve. "People on the Israeli side have said it's biased in favour of the Palestinians and then just the other day I had a response from someone whose sympathies were very clearly Palestinian who thought I had suggesting the degree of suffering was the same on both sides. You can never get it right."
In fact, the book's original illustrator, the Frenchman François Place, bowed out of the project at an early stage for political reasons. He was due to begin work early last year, when the Israeli bombardment of Gaza caused an international outcry. He was replaced on the project by the newspaper illustrator Laura Carlin. But in anticipation of such criticism, Morpurgo chose to create a central character with an obligation to be objective. The reporter Max is often asked by the other characters whose "side" he is on and although he claims to be non-partisan, he often struggles to sustain that position.
In many ways, the character fulfills the same function played by a horse, Joey, in the author's most famous novel War Horse. Set on the western front, the 1982 book attempts to examine the hardship and suffering experienced by those fighting in the First World War through the objective eyes of an animal. "It began as a discussion between me and a veteran of the First World War, nearly 30 years ago," says Morpurgo. "It had kept in print all this time and was translated into a dozen or more languages, but the book wasn't a massive success."
Then in 2007, the story was adapted for the stage and made its debut at the National Theatre in London. As well as its universal story of peace, the award-winning production became known for its ambitious technical design. The play includes life-size horse "puppets", manipulated by three puppeteers on the stage. "People who've seen it say it's not theatre, it's not a musical, it's a theatrical event and an unspeakably moving one," says Morpurgo.
But the story may soon gain even greater prominence, after the recent announcement that its film rights have been acquired by Spielberg and his partners at the Hollywood studio DreamWorks. The Saving Private Ryan director is so far confirmed only as producing the film, but with no director yet attached, it's possible he could helm the project as well. What's more, the screenplay is being written by Lee Hall, of Billy Elliot fame.
"The theatre is filled with 1,000 people every night and a producer from DreamWorks happened to go to see it," says Morpurgo. "She found the book the day after seeing the play, then another producer came over to see it. Before we knew it, Steven Spielberg had declared an interest and now we are hoping very much that he will direct it." But his stories are not the only reason why the author has been in the spotlight in recent years. In 2003, he became the UK's first Children's Laureate, charged with encouraging a generation of the county's youngsters to become enthusiastic readers - a task for which, as a former teacher, he was particularly well qualified.
The role, which is taken on for just two years, arose from a discussion between Morpurgo and Ted Hughes, at the time the Poet Laureate (an honorary title awarded by the monarch to a poet whose work is considered of national significance). "It was an experience that affected me deeply," Morpurgo admits. "As a writer, it gave me a much stronger voice, in terms of my own confidence to write about what I really wanted to write about."
He used the role to travel the country, visiting schools and events to promote the role of storytelling in education and life. He also campaigned to support local libraries and encouraged better training for teachers. "It turns you from being quite a private person into a public person for a couple of years," he says. "Some of what I tried to do was successful and some of it wasn't. It's not for long, but you put your heart and soul in it and try to make a difference."
After relinquishing the role to the poet Jacqueline Wilson in 2005, the author now organises each year into two halves - "writing" and "not writing". In the six months of writing, he spends three hours every morning working on coming books, before revising them later in the day. In the other six months, he reads, travels and looks for inspiration. It's a model that has allowed Morpurgo to publish an average of three books each year, for more than three decades.
"I was firmly told by a good friend of mine, Ted Hughes, that the whole writer's block thing is a nonsense and that the first part of writing is not writing at all, it's living," he says. "You have to look and listen and drink the world in around you. Then your head is always full of things that are interesting and can you just chose what to do from whatever has moved you most. "With The Kites Are Flying! that's exactly what happened."