Yesterday, Michael Morpurgo was created the new Children's Laureate. What, exactly, is the nature of such an honour? And, more to the point, who is its distinctively named yet strangely obscure beneficiary? Originated in 1998 by Ted Hughes and - well, yes - Michael Morpurgo, the Children's Laureate is a kind of life-time's Oscar for children's writers and illustrators that carries with it certain public-spirited obligations to promote the gentle art of kid- lit.
The two previous laureates were that familiar spiky illustrator of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake, and one of the undoubted stars of the children's literary firmament, Anne Fine. So far so famous. But the current incumbent? A quick search for Michael Morpurgo on the internet brings up almost 23,000 entries. He's big in France. Children clearly adore him. He's bagged the Whitbread, the Children's Book Award and the Smarties prize in a career that spans 30 years and has seen his books translated into 26 languages. The man has produced a thundering 94 titles to date, with more than 60 of them in print. Yet, in this shimmering era of children's literature, where the names of Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine and the sainted JK are known even to myopic pensioners, Morpurgo inhabits some murky region of almost-recognition. None of his titles - from the filmed Why the Whales Came to the televised Out of the Ashes - are instantly familiar either. It's all a little puzzling.
The new laureate lives in a thatched house in rural Devon, with Dartmoor louring on the near horizon. That other laureate, Ted Hughes, was a neighbour and close friend. Michael Morpurgo strides into view, grasps my hand, and declares we're all off to the pub for lunch. I protest that I'd rather speak to him without the possible constraints of his wife's presence, but this is the Morpurgo way. He and his wife Clare are hospitably all- inclusive, hosts each year to hundreds of city kids at their farms (more of which later). And, as a former teacher, Morpurgo clearly expects compliance.
Perhaps fortunate, then, that there's no sycophantic versifying for our princelings involved in his laureate role - despite the associations the name instantly evokes. "No no, I have no regal role at all." He intends to spend his two years in the position working hard to "lift children's literature in the eyes of both children and adults. To bang the drum a bit, and to blow the trumpet when necessary."
But surely children's literature is a boom business, garlanded with news headlines and pounds 1m advances? "I think the children's writers who are known are either the ones who are dead, or they're writers who have done what is called 'crossover'," says Morpurgo. "The point of the Children's Laureate is to try to focus on people like Alan Ahlberg, Dick King-Smith, all these people who write wonderful stories but not necessarily crossover books. All the publicity has been about the advances, the big Hollywood movies and all the rest of it, but children's literature? I don't think so."
Will people think that there's a connection between the award and the fact that he was one of its creators? "I've no doubt they'll think that. They can think that all they want," he replies sharply. "The truth is that I have nothing to do with the selection of it. In a way, I think it was probably almost a deterrent." It was given to him "largely because I'm old, I should think".
But Morpurgo's writing had something to do with it too. "My mother instilled in me a great love for the sound of words," he says, "but school had made me very frightened of all that, and literature and stories became very desiccated and withered for me. When I was teaching, I used to tell the children stories out loud in class, and I found they listened - that was the great thing. And I began to think, well, I could do this stuff. So I wrote a story down, …