Author Peter J Murray often inspires young writers during school visits and now one of his classroom trips has influenced his latest novel. Laura Drysdale reports.
Children’s author Peter J Murray meets around 30,000 young readers during the course of a school year. His quest to promote literacy sees the former teacher receive hundreds of emails from young people inspired to become writers - and now, it has sparked his own creativity and imagination too.
His latest book Poppy Warrior has been inspired by a visit to pupils at a school in his home county of South Yorkshire. Pheasant Bank Academy in Rossington, near Doncaster, left a lasting impression on the Rotherham storyteller when he first attended for a talk back in June 2017 - so much so that he has set his novel there and even named its characters after the staff.
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“I went there to inspire pupils about writing but they ended up inspiring me,” Murray says. “I was welcomed by an amazing display of wild poppies on an embankment and they, plus the wonderful children, had me thinking about a World War One tale.”
The red blooms and the mystery of how they got there sent his brain into “overdrive” as Murray, who is best known for his spooky Mokee-Joe series, penned his 15th children’s book, a Great War novel.
The story takes an 11-year-old, computer-game-addicted identical twin to the Western Front via a series of eerie events. There, standing alongside his great, great grandfather, he discovers the real life horrors of trench warfare.
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“The story delivers a poignant message of discovering the difference between the meaningless violence contained in virtual reality computer games and the actual events experienced by the brave men who fought and died for us,” Murray says.
“The narrative also uses historical fact based around the Battle of the Somme to show children the scale and horror of what happened.
“But it’s all set at Pheasant Bank Academy, with head Pippa Robinson and her deputy Ryan Schofield featuring. They and the children inspired an emotional blockbuster of a novel.”
Miss Robinson is thrilled about the book’s origins.
“The children and staff love hosting Peter at this academy as he’s an inspiring, thought-provoking speakers,” she says. “The children at Pheasant Bank love Peter’s stories and they can’t wait for other children to read a story that is based in their school.”
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Murray himself has maintained a connection with schooling for much of his life. Raised on a council estate in Rotherham, the author originally left school with few qualifications and followed in his family’s tradition of working in Sheffield’s steelworks.
He returned to education at the age of 21 and went on to study at Cambridge University. After a spell in Dubai, working in the petro-chemical industry, he then dabbled in teaching for the first time.
As well as working in several comprehensive schools, he later became assistant headmaster at Cheam School, whose famous pupils include Prince Charles and the Duke of Edinburgh.
He gave up that post to become a full-time author, self-publishing his first book Mokee Joe is Coming in 2003, a title which won the Sheffield Children’s Book Award. Today, when he is not writing, he is often touring schools across the UK and increasingly abroad in his literacy quest.
Poppy Warrior, Murray’s first hardback, will be launched at Pheasant Bank on September 11, when illustrator Paul Bryn Davies will also reveal the front cover design. Pupils will receive a signed copy courtesy of the school and its sponsor Delta Academies Trust.
The book can be purchased from www.peterjmurray.co.uk and book shops after its release and Murray will be promoting it at more than 90 schools across the UK during the academic year.