Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo


“‘It’s all right,’ said Mimi. ‘Come back down. I won’t hurt you.  I won’t let anyone hurt you.’ She held out her arm. ‘Come on, little dragon.’ Mimi knew he would come when he was ready.  And so he did, floating down on outstretched wings and landing on her wrist.” (p.18, Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo, 2014).

I can’t think of a better time than now to talk about empathy.  As the world faces one of its biggest health challenges, world leaders call for people to be understanding, considerate of one another, and mindful of those who are more vulnerable than themselves. It seems appropriate then, to be reading a book by an author who has championed such themes in his writings for children throughout his career.

Former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, is quoted as saying that if children have never imagined the lives of others, then they won’t learn empathy and make good decisions in later life. This appears to be the motivation behind Mimi and the Mountain Dragon, a story inspired by a trip to Switzerland where Morpurgo witnessed children from a village ringing cow bells, banging drums and cracking whips to drive away evil spirits – a ritual they performed every year.

His story starts with this tradition, but the evil spirits have been translated into the fear of a mountain dragon, and the ritual now includes the retelling of a story that reminds the villagers of how their community encountered the dragon through the courage of a small girl many years before.

For anyone that has read other Morpurgo stories, looking back to the past is an important part of how he aims to challenge young readers into empathising with people in situations that they may never have encountered before.  Stories of others long-gone, can fall on deaf ears, however, for a generation that is very much focused on the immediate present and the near future. But by introducing us to a narrator in the present day, involved in an intriguing ritualistic act, we are compelled to listen as he takes us back-in-time to unravel the story behind the unusual traditions of the mountain community.

The first person narrative that begins the tale makes us believe that the character presenting the story at the village gathering is in fact Morpurgo, and in this way, we as readers take the seats of the characters sitting around the campfire, ready and waiting to listen to the story that explains why the villagers use symbols of war and conflict in their Christmas tradition every year.

We hear the story of Mimi, a young girl who defies her parents and risks her own life to return a baby dragon to its mother at the top of the mountain, despite the belief that the dragon creates avalanches and takes people off the mountain.  Her empathy for the small dragon, separated from its mother, demonstrates how children should learn to understand all creatures, no matter how different they maybe from ourselves. Morpurgo says here that if empathy is not learnt in childhood, then young people become adults, like those in the village, who not only don’t understand those outside of their community, but are unwilling to even try.

Mimi’s adventure on the mountain shows her that if you invest the time, you can find creative ways to communicate across barriers and although the creature is bigger and stronger than any human, she is a mother, protecting her child, just as her own mother would. She learns that the image of the dragon has distorted the villagers understanding of their mountain environment, and in fact it is the people who created a monster far scarier than the reality.

Morpurgo often highlights the dangers of ‘otherness’ in his stories for children, and how fear of the ‘other’ leads to conflict.  He shows through Mimi that simple acts of kindness can bridge significant divides and has its own rewards, when the dragon ultimately saves the whole village from a snow storm.

Flash forward through the years of retelling this story to the villagers and we can now see that the banging of drums, ringing of cowbells, and cracking of whips commemorates a past ritual of both war and reconciliation, and the act of telling the story each year is the reminder that never again should the villagers rage against others, when there has been no attempt to reach out to them in the first place.

Morpurgo is typical of many other contemporary children’s writers, who demonstrate the loss of the ‘golden age’ of childhood. Children are no longer protected from an adult world, they can be corrupted by it and often fall victim to it. Mimi was in danger of becoming an adult as ignorant of her immediate environment as generations gone before her. It was her ability to empathise with another innocent young being that ultimately saves her and the generations to follow.

This beautifully illustrated story, now also a BBC animation, is sure to be a firm favourite with children and parents alike, and just like the villagers’ annual Christmas story-telling, is sure to be read and enjoyed again and again.

Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo, Egmont, 2019

Recommended to readers aged 5 upwards

Stig of the Dump by Clive King


“The Thing sitting in the corner seemed to be interested.  It got up and moved towards Barney into the light.  Barney was glad to see it was Somebody after all.  Funny way to dress though, he thought; rabbit-skins round the middle and no shoes or socks.” (p.7. Stig of the Dump, Clive King, 1963)

I very rarely remember books that I read in school; I more readily recall books that my parents bought for me or read to me. Stig of the Dump is the exception. A popular book in schools the world-over, this novel, published in 1963, tells the story of an enduring friendship that cuts across time and cultural divide.

Coming to this book again as an adult provides a slightly different experience, but Barney’s imaginative freedom (is Stig real, or made-up?) means that we can easily part with the real-world and be carried back into a childhood playground, where cavemen can of course live in a dump-site and scare away bullies and robbers.

It is this imaginative power of the book’s central character that has allowed the major question of the novel to go unanswered for many years – is Stig real or not? We will never know, but he is real to Barney and that is all that matters for the book’s moral core – friendship, tolerance, understanding and kindness – to stand the test of time and be a source of great entertainment for both children and adults.

In fact it is Barney’s imagination that makes his everyday reality more meaningful, as he uses mundane objects to try and make Stig’s environment more comfortable for him. His inventive use of jam jars, tin cans, clay and logs makes Stig’s ‘cave’ more of a home, and it is through this imaginative play that Stig and Barney find a way to communicate, allowing Barney to reach depths of understanding and empathy for another that he might not have had before.

Barney’s friendship with Stig makes him stronger; in standing up to bullies and robbers and various other elements that threaten Stig’s home, Barney finds a way to ‘fix’ an adult world that is still fundamentally broken.  Although written long after the Second World War, King perhaps makes a point about the state of the adult world by positioning Barney between only two locations for his story – Granny’s house and the rubbish dump. Granny’s house is characterised by what adults will allow Barney to be, and the dump allows childhood freedom, where he can play and have fun, but also learn and grow.

Children had to grow-up fast following the war, in order to replenish a depleted labour market; the golden age of childhood ended, blurring the lines between childhood and adulthood, in a way that perhaps King is disappointed by. We still need children to be children in order to puncture a corrupted and desperate adult-world, bringing much needed light into a darkened environment.

The dump may in fact represent this fatigue with the world, with the rubbish tip being created by adults that clearly have a disregard for the environment.  But the dump is ‘saved’ by Barney and Stig’s friendship, turning the rubbish tip into a home, a place that needs protecting, and a space where childish adventure can flourish.

In this way there is not one hero of this tale, but two.  Barney makes Stig real to the reader and Stig makes Barney’s playfulness appear enlightened, and so together they turn a crumbling world (the dump) into something worth saving.  King demonstrates that relationships like this have endless rewards; after improving Stig’s world, Barney is invited into Stig’s at the conclusion of the novel.

The ritualistic movement of stones through the valley is an act so at odds with the way that Stig has been living in the rubbish dump, that we are not sure whether Barney has travelled into the past or is helping build a new future. Barney helps moves the stones towards the sunset as though welcoming a new and better world, one that tips its hat to the merits of the natural world and walks away from man-made destruction.

Perhaps this is the real value to the friendship between these two characters – to bring the past into the future in a new respect for a world suffering from lack of care and respect.  These themes resonated with a post-world war environment, but is also a major topic for readers in the 21st century, as global societies grapple with how to save a planet ravaged by the mistakes of human beings.

Childhood imagination and innocence save the day for King, and can surely not be discounted today, when anxiety around protecting children, protecting the environment, and protecting diverse communities are core concerns.

Long may Stig and Barney continue to imagine and play in the rubbish dump!

Stig of the Dump by Clive King, Puffin Books, 2014

Recommended to readers aged 7 upwards