Michael Morpurgo on Amnesty and children's books

Guest blog from Michael Morpurgo

Amnesty at 50

For fifty years now, all my adult life, Amnesty has been there keeping watch over the injustices and wrongs and cruelties we inflict on one another, reminding us urgently that in this oh so smug world we live in there are horrors unimaginable being perpetrated on so many innocent people the world over.

Amnesty doesn’t just prick our collective conscience, and raise our awareness, it doesn’t just talk, it is proactive, righting wrongs, campaigning tirelessly, fearlessly, to expose abuses of human rights whenever they are uncovered, wherever they occur.

We need to take responsibility

But there is a problem with Amnesty. After 50 years it has become established worldwide as the most effective human rights watch we have. Where there is injustice, wherever human rights are being denied, or simply ignored,  it is all too easy to believe that Amnesty is on the case on our behalf, so that’s all right.

We dip into our pockets, beat our ‘Bravo Amnesty’ drums, indulge in heated conversations around the dinner table, and get on with our lives. Of course what we should be doing is taking the responsibility ourselves, to play our part in protecting the human rights of others. Maybe we do it sometimes, but  not enough. If we did, if all people of goodwill did this, then the tsunami of protest would roll on into the corridors of power, and sooner rather than later the bastions of tyranny, the walls of division and oppression and prejudice would come tumbling down.

The love of literature is a path to empathy

I’ve been teaching children and writing books for them for over 40 years, and of one thing I am sure: stories and poems can play a part in all this, an essential part.

We are constantly being told, and rightly so, of the right to education and the importance of literacy. Without it our children cannot prosper, cannot fulfill their potential, cannot pass all the tests and exams they will need to pass if they are to succeed in life. All this is of course missing the point. Literacy, if we aren’t careful, can become just a means to an end, a kind of ‘must have’ product our children must acquire if they are to make it in our world.
 
But developing in young children a love of poems and stories (fiction and non-fiction) is vital for another reason altogether. It is through literature, not simply literacy, that we learn to understand and empathize. As readers we learn about the lives of others, other places and cultures, other ways of seeing the world.

We find out about the past, understand better how it made our today and how our today makes our tomorrow.  We learn we are not alone in our feelings, that joy and suffering and pain are universal, that humanity is to be celebrated for its diversity but is ultimately one humanity.

Through literature we can find our place in world, feel we belong and discover  our sense of responsibility. Amnesty understands this very well, and the organisation today seeks out, encourages and endorses children’s literature that it believes can help children develop this great skill of empathy – a skill that is vital for tolerance to grow, hatred to diminish, and human rights to flourish.

Stories - anthems for peace and reconciliation

I have written a great deal about war and conflict, largely because I grew up in the ‘40’s, in the aftermath of the worst conflagration the world has ever known. At the heart of my books you will often find an animal – a cavalry horse in ‘War Horse’, a sniffer dog in ‘Shadow’ – or a child as in ‘Friend or Foe’ or ‘I believe in Unicorns’ or ‘The Kites are Flying’.

In each case it is a story suffering seen through the prism of innocence. Each is in its own way is  a  story of war, but each is also an anthem for  the peace and reconciliation, and hope, that may one day lead to a world in which Amnesty is no longer needed. That may be far off, but we and Amnesty together must live for the day.

This piece first appeared in the Observer on 29 May 2011 to mark Amnesty's 50th anniversary. You can download free Amnesty teaching notes for Michael Morpurgo's book Shadow and the anthology 'Free?'

Michael Morpurgo is a British author whose reputation as a children's storyteller is unparalleled. He has written over 100 books and won countless awards. He was Children's Laureate from 2003 to 2005 and wrote ‘No Trumpets Needed’, one of the short stories in Amnesty’s anthology FREE?, published by Walker Books.
 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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