BOOKS
04/20/2011 10:22 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2011

Michael Morpurgo's Animal Stories For Grownups

Should you read anything at all about him or look for his work in a bookstore, you will learn that Michael Morpurgo is a kids' author, a Children’s Laureate in the UK.

But the population of the line wending its way around New York's Lincoln Center last Wednesday, waiting to see the writer participate in a panel that marked the U.S. opening of the stage adaptation of his 1982 novel “War Horse,” was, for the most part, aged north of 60.

“I don’t think I write books for children,” said Morpurgo, also north of 60. “I just write what I want to write.”

Whether he writes with grownups, children, or simply himself in mind, there Morpurgo sat in the mist near Lincoln Center's reflecting pool, dressed exactly the way a child would want her favorite author to look: salmon-pink suit and black beret, a flamingo on a gray afternoon.

“If you tell a story about an animal, that’s considered a book for children.” He shrugged. “Do you remember Tarka The Otter? Well, that’s not really a children’s book, is it?”

(Well-known in England, Tarka's full title is “Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of Two Rivers.” The tale, narrated by a young otter, chronicles the creature's happy life in the water followed by his eventual violent death. One wonders: Had Kafka turned his Gregor into something slightly softer, perhaps "The Metamorphosis" would be classified Young Adult?)

Many of Morpurgo's more than 100 books focus on Grownup Things: the two World Wars, violent conflicts in the Middle East, senseless cruelty or mistreatment of innocents. But he tells his stories directly, with the camera held low—by a child, an animal, or someone looking back on his youth. His heroes (a bellboy, an orphaned girl) often find themselves in tough situations entrusted with a burden of some sort, perhaps caring for something fragile.

An actor who played a soldier in London's "War Horse" cast, Morpurgo said, joked that he got fed up each night when the audience gasped in horror after his horse was shot, but not when his character took a bullet himself.

“We use animals as sort of a repository for our own emotions,” said Morpurgo. “They are sentient. But we also know that they have feelings, like ours, of a sort we can understand."

Steven Spielberg enjoyed "War Horse" enough to want to direct it as a feature film, which should be out late December.

After last week's panel -- as the author discussed empathy, the projection of a human innocence upon animals, the grace and mobility of horses -- three elderly ladies, one weeping, stopped and asked him to sign their programs.

“People like to think that they’ve grown out of animals,” said Morpurgo. “But they haven’t.” He indicated the line of grownups encircling the theater. “The evidence is there.”