Being Michael Rosen
Michael Rosen (MA Children's Literature, 1993) is a celebrated children's author, broadcaster, lecturer, and holder of the Children's Laureate title, 2007-2009. To date, he has written over 140 books.
It is a gloriously hot day in London when I meet Michael at the Royal Festival Hall; a place where he feels very much at home having lived in London all his life. Growing up with his parents and brother in Harrow, Michael’s love for literature was born.
‘Both of my parents were teachers and have had a huge influence on my life and work. To say that they were keen readers is a massive understatement! They were totally engaged in lots of literature in all its forms. Even in the last hours of his life, my Dad was still saying to me: ‘‘You know I really think you ought to read…..’’ And despite me telling him that he had other things to worry about, he’d remain insistent; still supervising my education in his ninetieth year!’
‘From childhood, I always had an idea that I wanted to get involved in writing, but I don’t think I had the sense that I could write as a profession. I always wanted to be an actor.’
Interestingly, when he was 18, Michael began to study medicine- an experience he prefers to refer to as ‘a little diversion’. ‘I got it into my head that to be a serious person, you have to do something slightly less frivolous than writing, and it took me three or four years to get this out of my system.’
After a period of working at the BBC and a few publications later, Michael was drawn into the children’s books world, and his first book, Mind your own Business, was published in 1974.
Keeping in touch with what children find scary or intriguing comes easily to Michael. Considering that some of his latest poems ponder broccoli growing under the armpits, and how frightening public toilet hand dryers are, I ask how he retains this curious mindset when he is writing.
‘As we have all been children, there is a level at which you can imagine being a child-it is not impossible. In fact, it is quite easy. Part of it is helped by having young children. I tell them things which I have to explain it in a way they will get it.’
Michael lights up when he talks about his children, and amusingly recounts their feelings on his work.
‘My five-year-old will plead with me to read ‘‘the one about the…’’, but if we are on holiday and I haven’t got that particular book with me then he doesn’t understand why I don’t know it. As he has seen me reciting my work on YouTube, he thinks I know them all off by heart- but I can’t explain how autocue works to a five-year-old! The irony is that his Dad ends up saying ‘‘No, you can’t have a Michael Rosen poem!’’
‘I even get a critical analysis from my children. The other day, my daughter told me the poem Chocolate Cake was boring- I said that’s because you’ve heard it twenty times!’
Just over ten years ago, Michael’s personal life was marked by tragedy, when his eighteen-year-old son Eddie died of meningitis. A few years later, Michael channelled his anguish into Sad Book, a poignant text which mourns the loss of Eddie. Sad Book reaches out to children- and adults- facing some of the darkest issues we, as humans, have to deal with, and voices the emotions that are often unspeakable in day-to-day life. With a patient grace that signals he is used to being asked about this, Michael explains what prompted him to write about his own personal grief.
‘It was partly triggered by the fact that children kept asking me about Eddie, because I used to write about him as a little boy in my work. Then I would have to say ‘‘he died’’. Then I thought wouldn’t it be a good idea if they could access that in the same way that they’ve accessed the funny stories I’ve written about Eddie? So it came out of a moment about five or so years ago just, as it were, imagining a child in front of me and explaining to them where I am now in relation to Eddie.
‘While I tend not to do readings of Sad Book, children, teachers and counsellors will talk about it with me. In fact, one boy in a school last week just stopped me in the doorway, put his thumbs up, and said Sad Book. Now, whether he had experienced grief in his family or he just wanted to acknowledge that he had read it and thought it was a good book, I don’t know.’
At this point during the interview, Michael leaps up and exclaims ‘Colin! Col! Come over here!’ I am intrigued as Colin comes over and Michael introduces us.
‘Colin co-composed our ‘Nonsense Project’. I wrote two books on nonsense, then Colin and his co-composers created a jazz oratorio based on the poems. In fact, we are building this into a children’s series which will have photography and music, as well as writing- like a photographical musical story. So if you imagine Peter and the Wolf with photographs, you will get the idea!’
Michael is clearly a well-connected man, having also worked with the illustrator Quentin Blake on many of his texts.
‘I think of Quentin as a mime artist on the page- he mimes with his pen and creates a silent show of my poems. If someone was miming my stuff, they would be doing Quentin like things.’
Perhaps this is why Quentin seemed a natural choice to illustrate Michael’s very personal Sad Book.
‘There are two or three pages in the Sad Book that are just unbelievable. There is one picture sequence that shows an energetic Eddie in various frames, but the last one is blank. I love that, I think that’s great.’
In 2007, Michael was appointed Children’s Laureate, a prestigious role which is awarded to an eminent illustrator or writer every two years. What Michael accomplished in these two years is outstanding, and quite rightly, he is very proud of all he achieved in his time as Laureate.
‘I started the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, which is an award for the funniest book of the year. We also did an exhibition on the history of children’s poetry at the British Library and this tribute made me feel over the moon. I also created a website where children can upload their own poetry- this website is what I am all about. I am very proud of these three projects I must say’.
Michael has continued to impart his wisdom with adults too, and is currently lecturing a Children’s Literature module for Masters students at Birkbeck College, University of London.
And just because he is no longer Laureate does not mean that Michael has taken a back-seat when it comes to his work commitments. I ask him if there is such a thing as a typical day.
‘No, I mean, if I show you my diary, no day is the same.’ Pointing to his bursting and worn organiser, Michael gives me a glimpse into his packed- and quite frankly exhausting- schedule for the forthcoming week.
‘After this, I’m going around the corner to help launch a book of poems by Southwark children. Tomorrow I’m going to a secondary school conference in Warwickshire. On Wednesday, I’m talking to teachers in Harrow about my website where children can upload their poetry. On Thursday I’ll be in Manchester for the Carol Ann Duffy Children’s Literature poetry festival that she is organising, and then on Friday, I am supervising a student.’ With a knowing smile, he reminds me that in that time, he will also do some writing.
My next question was set to ask if he likes to go to a particular place to seek inspiration to write. Upon seeing his diary however, I quickly realise that finding time to think and write in a ‘room of one’s own’ may not be such an obvious concept.
‘Quite often, I write on scrap paper and the back of envelopes if I get ideas as I walk about. Look, I’ll show you. [Michael shows me a piece of paper with ‘Snail on the road’ written on it]. I had a slightly strange experience this morning as I was crossing the road and it dawned on me that there’s somebody moving even slower than me. And I thought there’s an idea there, so I scribbled it down. Might be a story, might be a poem-maybe I’ll write in on the train tomorrow on the way to Warwickshire.’
Meeting Michael Rosen and hearing his anecdotes has been filled with hilarity and poignancy at the same time. As our meeting concludes, it is strikingly obvious as to why he is a much-loved children's author. He is fun, yet pensive; entertaining, and extremely hard-working.
And the best advice he has ever received?
'My Dad used to say in a parentally dismissive way 'keep writing lad'. But in actual fact, there is no better advice to give to a writer.'
Words by Laura Garman