Thursday, 9 July 2020

I Believe In Unicorns

Here at Grandma's Nursery, yesterday was Unicorn Day. These creatures are ubiquitous, and Rosie loves them. She also loves books and storytelling. Whilst preparing, I came across a piece Michael Morpurgo wrote in November 2014, advocating the need for libraries - and he included a passage from one of his books. I know it is lazy of me, but I'm too busy and too tired to write my own post today. And MM says it far better than I can anyway...

Every child’s right to literacy

Knowing as we do that reading is the key to knowledge and understanding, essential to the fulfilling of young lives, and knowing too there are at least a million children in this country not fully literate when they leave primary school, we all accept that not enough has been done to bring children to books and books to children.

It is the task of all of us as parents, grandparents and teachers to do all we can to encourage their enjoyment of reading. But it is the task of the community to support this endeavour. Illiteracy is most common, we know, amongst those who live in poverty or close to poverty. It is particularly those families that need libraries. The price of a book from a shop may seem cheap to many. For many, such a purchase is simply not possible. We have a duty surely as a society to make sure that no child is denied access to literacy and literature because of social and financial deprivation. Every one of them has a right to be literate.

Books should be available to all, free at the point of delivery. Only then can young lives be turned around, horizons widened, understanding and empathy deepened. Libraries and particularly the librarians who work in them, whether in schools or in the community, are essential if we are to do this, for us all, but especially for those who need them most: those with least, young and old.

I Believe in Unicorns: a passage

One afternoon – and that particular afternoon I had got to the library first and was sitting in the very best place on the carpet, right beside the unicorn – the Unicorn Lady reached into her bag of “special” books and took out a book I’d never seen before. She held it up so we could all see. It looked rather old and tatty. The spine of the book was heavily taped, and the cover so stained that I found it difficult to read the title. And it was blackened too, at the edges, I noticed, as if it might have been scorched a long time ago.

“This, children,” the Unicorn Lady said, “is definitely my most special book in all the world. It’s my very own copy of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. You remember him, don’t you? He was the author who wrote The Ugly Duckling, wasn’t he? And The Snow Queen. This book may not look much to you, but my father gave it to me when I was a young girl. So it’s very special to me. Very special indeed.”

“Has it been burned, Miss?” I asked. 

“Yes, Tomas.”

“Why, Miss, what happened?”

It was a while before she answered me. I saw a shadow of sorrow come across her face, and when she spoke at last her voice trembled so much I thought she might cry. “When I was little, even littler than any of you,” she began, “I lived in another country far away from here. It was a time when wicked people ruled the land, wicked people who were frightened of the magic of stories and poems, terrified of the power of books. They knew, you see, that stories and poems help you to think and to dream. Books make you want to ask questions. And they didn’t want any of us to think or dream, and especially they did not want us to ask questions. They wanted us only to think as they thought, to believe what they believed, to do as we were told. So one day in my town these wicked people went into all the bookshops and libraries and schools and brought out all the books they didn’t like, which was most of them. And there in the square, soldiers in black boots and brown shirts built a huge bonfire of these books. As the books went up in flames, do you know what the soldiers did? They cheered. Can you believe that, children? They cheered. I was there with my father watching it all happen.

 “Suddenly I heard my father cry out: ‘No! No!’ And he rushed forward and plucked a book out of the fire. He tried to beat out the flames with his bare hands. The soldiers were shouting at us, so we ran away, but they came after us and caught up with us. They knocked my father to the ground and kicked him and hit him with sticks and rifle butts. My father curled up to protect himself as best he could, but he held on to the book and would not let go, no matter how much they beat him. They tried to tear it out of his hands, but he would not let them have it. This was the book he clung on to, children, this very book. This was the book he saved. So that is why it is my favourite, most special book in all the world.” As she looked down at us, the shadow seemed slowly to lift from her, and she smiled. “And,” she went on, “The Little Match Girl also happens to be a lovely story, children, very sad but very lovely. Tomas, I wonder if you’d like to come and sit on the unicorn and read it to us. You haven’t had a turn on the unicorn yet, have you?” Everyone was looking at me.

They were waiting. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t do it. I was filled with sudden fear.

“Come on,” she said. “Come and sit beside me on the unicorn.”

I had never been any good at reading out loud at school. I would forever stutter over my consonants – I dreaded k’s in particular. Long words terrified me in case I pronounced them wrongly and everyone laughed at me. But now, sitting up there on the magic unicorn, I began to read, and all my dread and all my terror simply vanished. I heard my voice speaking out strong and loud. It was as if I was up in the mountains alone and singing a song at the top of my voice, for the sheer joy of the sound of it. The words danced like music on the air, and I could feel everyone listening. And I knew they were listening not to me at all, but to the story of The Little Match Girl, because they were just as lost in it as I was.

That same day I borrowed my first book from the library. I chose Aesop’s Fables because I liked the animals in them, and because the Unicorn Lady had read them to us and I had loved them. I read them aloud to Mother that night when she came up to say goodnight to me. I read to her instead of her reading to me. It was the first time I’d ever done that. Father came and listened at the doorway whilst I was reading. He clapped when I’d finished. “Magic, Tomas,” he said. “That was magic.”

Extract from I Believe in Unicorns, Michael Morpurgo (published by Walker Books)


  1. It's been a while since I read a Michael Morpurgo book but I love them! He has a distinct style which I love. I haven't read this one!

  2. I don’t know this book, but - being a librarian I totally agree with you about the importance of reading ( and being read to). The thrill, the magic, the joy of discovering a new story gives a child só much! I’ll try to find a Dutch copy of this beautiful book!

  3. I could not agree more with today's post. But libraries and librarians can only do so much - especially as technology takes over in many a child's life. It has to start with parents - even if they can't afford a book they can take their child to a library and encourage reading within the home. I truly believe it is the best start in life you can ever give a child.

  4. This brought a tear to my eye. I have been in both Tomas and the librarian's position. I have been blessed by being able to share the love of books with children, especially with those who struggled with reading. I have done battle to keep children's work active in libraries, even taking on library management! I must read this book.

  5. I have to confess that I have only read the extract- but like all of you, I now want to read the whole book!

  6. I've always enjoyed reading and read to my daughter practically from the day she was born. In fact, I bought her a book even before she was born! Weekly visits to the library began when she was just a toddler and she had her first library card when she was 5.


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