Not Bad for a Bad Lad

Written by Michael Foreman (illus.) Michael Morpurgo
Review by Julie Parker

This is a lovely, gentle, nostalgic life story of a grandfather told to his grandson and beautifully illustrated by Michael Foreman. In the form of a fable, the moral of this story is not to judge by appearances. The narrator, the grandfather, is never named though most of the other characters are, but we, as readers, feel we know him well by the end of the book. I suppose he could be anybody’s grandfather. He does not get on well at school and in the 1940s, when he was a boy, schools were much harsher places with corporal punishment a regular thing. He gets in with a bad crowd and takes to driving cars without permission, petty theft and so on. Eventually he is caught, comes up before the courts and is sent to a Borstal in Suffolk for a year. The regime is harsh but he struggles on – his experiences have caused a rift with his family, so he feels very alone. He goes for a daily jog which takes him past some stables in the Borstal grounds where he finds a small stud dedicated to breeding Suffolk Punches – the heavy horses which were still used as work horses in those days. An older man is often in the stable yard and one day they get into a conversation. His involvement with the “gentle giants” is the turning point in the “bad lad’s” life. The wonderfully subtle tones of the illustrations depict accurately the relationship of the boy with the horses and the local landscape.

Due to his good work with the horses he gets out of the Borstal three months early, but with no friends he ends up sleeping on a park bench… but another surprise is just around the corner. There is a factual appendix consisting of: “Young criminals in prison; Hollesley Bay Suffolk Punch horses; Horses in the military” and several black and white photographs from the 1940s. Highly recommended, and a useful resource for teachers of the upper primary age group.