“Nursery rhymes are wonderful and surprising little dramas”- An interview with Michael Rosen

 

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This interview has had a gestation more complicated than a multiple pregnancy. Bedeviled by a stolen voice recorder at the Latitude festival, where Rosen was speaking and I was doing press coverage- leaving me with no choice other than to frantically scribble down answers in situ (with a pencil– old school). Then, at home, I was burgled and the bag containing the original notes PLUS transcribed document on a memory stick was nicked. I had come to accept that this was the one that got away. However a few weeks ago the police recovered some of my stolen property including the purse with the stick in. Hence interview.2 reconstructed as best I can. Apologies Mr Rosen for the time-lag.

The previous November, it had been announced that Michael Rosen had been appointed Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London in order to run a new MA in Children’s Literature starting in 2014. It was this that I was particularly interested in; the need to build an academic knowledge base for children’s literature and how this could be of benefit at a time (July 2014) where Michael Gove, then the education secretary, was making pronouncements about the worth of one set text over another.

The relative lack of critique and study of literature for children has left us all wide open to Gove-ian interference regarding what is ‘right’ and who gets to arbitrate ‘taste’ (and his departure doesn’t mean we are out of the woods either). The wrong people are exerting influence for reasons motivated by something other than their critical analysis of the texts themselves but until we have that critical rigour, we lie helpless in the face of this.

So, Michael, who is the arbitrator of taste? Who is deciding now what we read as children?

“I gained my MA in the early nineties and have been teaching and involved in education since then, from a position of wanting to share what I have learned- it all comes from that. As artists and critics, we can easily be bypassed, we have zero power and we need to work towards establishing a consensus. Through research and collaboration and educational critique, it is possible in a sense, to all get that opportunity to be a ‘King for a Day’ where we can say ‘my turn to talk…’

And Gove? Where does he come in?

Power engenders power. It’s a well-oiled party machine and there’s a belief that if they talk ‘this’ way they’ll get ‘it’ into power but Gove…he’s a liability to their side. In whatever role. 

“Gove oddly set himself up as a know it all and was not generous in his way of listening and working with teachers, those in education…the children. He has the ‘power of convenient’, he is using his position to impose his own political views. He could have convened a discussion in a human and thoughtful manner. He is very Napoleonic and cannot bear to think of a consensus. Nothing is being set free here. It is all about imposition. We have teachers who have invested their lives in learning how to do what they do really well. He doesn’t want to hear from them. 

In previous interviews, Michael Rosen has made clear his belief that despite Gove (and the government) stating that these stipulations allow schools to act as they wish with regard to what is studied in literature, in fact the adding in of extra texts above and beyond those stipulated would be almost impossible for teachers. The workload is already immense.

He goes on to state that there is huge interest and academic potential in children’s literature, not as addendum and tag along to adult literature (nor framed in the light of what we loved as children) but a whole new world of critical theory with more than 10,000 children’s books being published in the United Kingdom every year.

“Children’s books are different, in so many ways and are vulnerable to the opinions of uninformed ‘experts’- they have a dual focus in that they are part of the process of formally educating a child but they are also guiding, reflecting and nurturing. The best do this.”

If you take into account the view that each child’s background will affect their relationship not only with the idea of reading itself but the content on every printed page, it is baffling as to why there has been this snobbery for so long about the formal study of children’s literature. It has made us vulnerable to seeking out the wrong people as arbitrators of taste- people like Gove.

“We can value reading for pleasure. We learn beyond exams and the feeding in of information and the retrieval of it through exams and tests. But we learn through the world and what is around us- our bodies, the earth, the way we play and eat and the energy and life around us.

Go onto Michael Rosen’s website and what strikes you is his love of words- a playfulness and exploration and inquisitiveness that we of course celebrate in children and then find that most of us seem to lose along the way. There are videotapes of poetry readings and interviews conducted by year-sixers, jokes and quizzes and while there are sections for ‘adults’, there is little sense of him hiving off younger age groups.  The same applies too, to the different ways in which humans use words. To some of us poetry seems to breathe a more rarified air and it can be a little intimidating- not something for the ‘beginner’ in literature which is a shame.  I asked Michael how parents (and non parents too) can engage with poetry despite their unfamiliarity or unease with it-

But poetry is everyday- it isn’t a separate ‘thing’. Think of nursery rhymes- They are wonderful and surprising little dramas, full of mysteries with all kinds of interesting meanings. Even tiny babies are suddenly engaging with life- a richness of life when they hear them. Think of one- Why was Little Miss Muffet on a tuffet? What is a tuffet? Think of the sound of that word. You can ask questions about them, the child can ask questions about them and it doesn’t matter about the answer.

“Sing songs to them. Look at Dolly Parton and her song ‘The Coat of Many Colours’ which is written verse and is the loveliest story. Engage children with words that fill their heads with the strangeness of non speech language. Writing and the reading of it alone cannot show them everything that is special about a story. Use non verbal storytelling by singing and acting out the words and show them how emotion can be conveyed through the whole body. That teaches them how to manage their own feelings and how to understand the feelings of others. 

So can you recall what your own introduction to poetry was? Your first book?

“My first poetry book was the Kingfisher Book of Children’s Poetry and I love the work of Grace NicholsRoger McGough and John Foster. My parents loved poetry, we had poets visiting and we all told stories.

Michael goes on to discuss how song and poetry share an affinity through their rhythmic structure and cites the example of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for which Longfellow invented the four beat line. The tetrameter, (also called  strong-stress, native meter or four by four meter) is commonly used  in nursery rhymes, ballads and folk songs and has four beats to a line. On a simplistic level, anything with a heartbeat-like rhythm is going to soothe or arouse but more importantly, if you want to introduce yourself or a child to the realm of human experience seen through the prism of poetry, why not exploit what we already know to be familiar and comfortable? Start there and progress onto the other stuff.

Certainly poetry celebrates the rhythm, pitch and sound of language and also the non language sounds that come out of our mouths. Individual words convey meaning in themselves- not only when they are combined with other words. Michael Rosen’s own poetry is testimony to this. Watch this VT of Rosen reading out ‘Chocolate Cake’. There are sounds and expressions that you won’t find in a dictionary and sounds that mean something even if you have an impaired inability to decode language. A son of a friend who was diagnosed with Autism aged three responds to Michael’s sounds of glee with his own glee and it is one of the few times we see him associate joy with sound. It usually troubles him. Small babies are oblivious to the values and meanings attached to words and until they learn those things, they will enjoy a word for the sound it makes solely.  We all eventually learn that a word is an object and it has its own tale to tell but there is a kind of joy involved in going back in time through the reactions of the very young to words and poems and stories. Their reaction is unfiltered.

I once read that babies are born able to make every sound of every language in the world. So the acquisition of language is as much about the process of forgetting as it is about learning. Babies are the kings and  queens of neologisms, they play with sounds, feel them in their mouths, they listen and experience the sound of speech and noise from the inside out and this is something that poets seem to retain or relearn.

“Babies are natural poets. We as writers and poets morph and invent language- babies do this from the start. They don’t know that the sound you are making is ‘right’ or wrong. They borrow and they invent and poets- they do that too. People like Shakespeare, they didn’t fossilize or get pedantic about what word is ‘right’. 

Is poetry more supportive and reflective of changing language and idiom and would you say that it is a more natural vehicle to reflect a child’s lived experience?

“Poetry can and does talk in many voices. I see my own fathers voice..and that of others but you also need to find your own voice too. Poets can use and mine the language of anybody or anything- we do steal the voices of others when we need to. Our language is rich and it reflects what we borrow and what we invent. My own childhood home was full or oral history, tales told, my parents recited poetry and they were teachers and questioned everything. 

Michael went on to talk about how he wrote ‘Words are Ours’, a perfect reflection of the way in which language and its signifiers- the signs of the times, the signs of our times morph. The poem Incorporates ‘text-speak’ to wonder what the next thing, the next word will be and what it might say about us and the impermanence of a fast moving technology is the perfect vehicle to convey this

“We’re not statues and we don’t stand still. Poetry is dynamic and changes. We use dialect- Wordsworth wrote in dialect. People like Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephraniah taught me how to stand and perform and how to reach people using me. I saw how they used their bodies and their voices, how the poems emanated from them. 

He has no truck with word snobbishness. He also has no truck with the idea that we must stick to our ‘own’ dialects although he is also emphatic about the role poetry has to play in promoting and valuing regional and cultural variations. Rosen sees poetry being as inclusive as any other art form and beautifully  experimental – he talks to me like a poetic Professor Branestawm. Sense of place is important but entrenchment is to be resisted. In a poet like Grace Nichols we see the linguistic gymnastics that move language forward leaving pedants trapped in a mire of their own making. Creole and standard English are woven together in her work BUT this is poetry to be performed, heard, not just left on the page. And it is this lesson that Rosen has really taken on board and demonstrated to us. He has taken it further. As I spoke to him he would break off into verse, would show me what he meant by playing with his own words, either via his own poetry or that of others, or song. He recited a portion of his own poem ‘Hand on the Bridge’ to show me how a dynamic, chanting, speechy way of reciting had been inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah and I, like a typical repressed English person at first sat a little awkwardly then by the third or fourth word, grew still and then spellbound.

For more information:

Michael Rosen’s website

Michael Rosen A-Z of Best Children’s Poems

 

Photographs copyright of Michael Rosen. Taken from his website.

 

 

 

 

Books to Help Children Cope with Loss

Incomprehensible to an adult, how on earth can we expect a child to get a handle on death and bereavement, especially when their parents and family may well be struggling themselves? These books are not a substitute for loving human contact and explanations (no matter how clumsy or incomplete these may be) but what they can do is provide a breathing space for grieving adults who might be struggling to put words to their pain. The child is helped to understand that death is universal through the written experiences of others and there are a myriad of ways by which we experience and understand it. And shared reading will help both parent and child to cope.

Sad Book by Michael Rosen 

 

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The pairing of two of Britain’s former Laureates, and chronicling Michael’s grief at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis when he was a teenager, this is a moving combination of honesty, sincerity and simplicity which acknowledges that sadness is not always avoidable or reasonable. We like this book because it makes those complicated feelings plain on the page, with the illustrations of Quentin Blake expressing that which cannot be communicated verbally- whether that be through the weight of pain or there being no words. It wasn’t made like any other book either; Michael Rosen said of the text, ” I wrote it at a moment of extreme feeling and it went straight down onto the page … Quentin didn’t illustrate it, he ‘realized’ it. He turned the text into a book and as a result showed me back to myself. No writer could ask and get more than that.” And Quentin Blake says that the picture of Michael “being sad but trying to look happy” is the most difficult drawing he’s ever done… “a moving experience.”

Children and their parents everywhere have grown up with the work of Michael Rosen. When bad things happen we turn to the familiar because it makes us feel a little safer in a world that has tilted on its axis and is less dependable as a result. To read the words of an author that we love and trust brings comfort and for us, that is this books greatest strength, even if it strikes us as grossly unfair that such pain should be visited on a man who has given us so much.

Duck, Death & the Tulip by  Wolf Erlbruch, Penelope Todd and Catherine Chidgey

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This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully. The author,  Erlbruch is a much respected man in Germany and his subjects emerge from the less cosy side of childhood, a place filled with edgy creatures and difficult themes. You won’t find a fuzzy bunny or a little bear who can’t sleep in Duck, Death and the Tulip and the story is simple. A duck notices that she is being followed. She is scared stiff, and who can blame her, for her stalker is an eerie figure in a checked robe with a skull for a head.

Erlbruch gives the impression that he is incapable of sentimentality, but his drawings are delicate, beautiful and convey a sweet humour that helps us cope with the immensity of the subject. “You’ve come to fetch me?” asks the terrified Duck. But Death demurs, explaining that he has always been close at hand, in case of some mishap.

Duck strikes up a friendship with Death which is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence, eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock and there is something infinitely tender in the way Death strokes her ruffled feathers into place, lifts her body and places it gently in the river, watching as she drifts off into the distance. “For a long time he watched her. When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.”

Care is needed in the telling of this story because it could inspire nightmares in the more ruminative and sensitive child. We found it difficult; the depictions of death are not cosy although the comfort that death can bring to the old, the tired, the sick and the sick of it is acknowledged. Death comforts the dying duck and is comforting to those of us who can understand that life can be a burden- whether your child can grasp this is your call.

The Bear and the Wildcat by Kazumi Yumoto and Komako Sakai

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Bear is grieving for his little friend, Bird. He has gently laid him to rest in a box lined in the softest moss,leaves and feathers and has a desperate need to talk about Bird with his other friends but they all urge him to move on. Bear doesn’t want to and is not ready to move on either. He wants to both mourn and celebrate his friendship and feels isolated by his grief from his friends and from the World.

One day Bear meets a Wildcat sitting alone next to a violin shaped box and after asking about its contents, confides in Wildcat about Bird, “You must have loved Bird very much” is all Bear needs to hear to unlock the torrent of love, longing and memories inside him; memories illustrated beautifully by the vignettes of Bird’s life- a life well lived. The celebration and commemoration continues as Bear decorates Bird’s box with bright leaves as his new friendship grows and we see those vivid memories come to life. In this, children learn that eternal life can mean living on in the hearts and minds of those left behind, irrespective of religious belief.

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The messages in this book are wonderfully pragmatic, healing and heartbreaking for both parent and child. We are slowly guided to the realisation that memories must be cherished, celebrated in an every day manner and friendship never dies. Grieving is honourable and a new friendship is not a betrayal- it is part of honouring those that have gone before. Indeed we realise that the best way to love again is to have loved before.

We would recommend this as a supervised read for a child (and adult) who have recently endured loss and it will help stimulate age appropriate chats about feelings and experiences at a difficult time. The book also serves as useful preparation for pet owners, especially of creatures with short lives who provide our children with an early experience of loss.

The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic and Illustrated by Olivier Talliec

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We were most jolted by the  anger we felt when we lost our Grandfather so this book, dealing as it does with the anger of a little boy whose mother has died, is important in the way it represents a full range of human responses to death. The little boy is overwhelmed with sadness, anger and fear that he will forget his mother, shutting all the windows to keep in her familiar smell and scratching open the cut on his knee to help him recall her comforting voice. He doesn’t know how to speak to his dad any more, and when Grandma visits and throws open the windows, it’s more than the boy can take – until she shows him another way to hold on to the feeling of his mum’s love. With tenderness, touches of humour and unflinching emotional truth, Charlotte Moundlic captures the loneliness of grief through the eyes of a child, rendered with sympathy and charm in Olivier Tallec’s expressive red-infused acrylic and pencil drawings.

Read it to yourself a few times before sharing with a child; while we advocate sharing feelings of pain and loss with your children, we advise being prepared first because the rage, pain and isolation of this little boy can be very hard to bear but so many children have reported finding this book a solace and realistic depiction of their own feelings that it is worth persevering with.

Still Here with Me: Teenagers and Children on Losing a Parent by Suzanne Sjoqvist

 This book is a moving and thoughtful anthology of the experiences of thirty-one children and teenagers who have lost a parent. In their own words, children and young people of a variety of ages talk openly and honestly about losing their mother or father. They describe feelings of pain, loss and anger, the struggle to cope with the embarrassed reactions and silence of others, and the difficulties involved in rebuilding their lives. They also share happy and loving memories of their parents, and talk about the importance of remembering while learning to accept their parent’s death. The accounts cover a variety of circumstances in which a parent died, including death from cancer, heart attack and involvement in an accident. Taboo experiences which are often avoided are also covered, including death through alcoholism, natural disaster, war, suicide, and domestic violence. The book displays a courageous and insightful group of children and young people who prove that it is possible to talk openly about these subjects without stigma. Still Here with Me will be a valuable source of information and comfort to young people who are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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Illustration by Jim Kay

A simply stunning book for older readers that challenges the reader emotionally and intellectually- it deals with a child experiencing the death of their mother and spares nothing in its steadfast honesty and sensitivity. The story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy who is continually visited by a monster while his mother is dying, Patrick Ness has taken an original story from the gone too soon writer Siobhan Dowd, (who died of breast cancer at the age of 47) and produced a book most worthy of her. The monster – part wild yew tree, part giant man – tells the boy three stories. These confusing tales pale into comparison to the true monster in the home- the death of Conor’s beloved mother and the mystery of death, terrible in its unknowing-ness.

The hardback copy has illustrations by Jim Kay and these amplify the beauty and emotion of the text. Although you will be sliding down a wall, sobbing by the end of the book, it is a cathartic grief and so I would recommend this book for those months when people have ceased to acknowledge your loss or expect you to have ‘dealt with it’.

Fred by Posy Simmons

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We can never know all the details of somebodies life, no matter how close we are to them. Even if we are well acquainted with a persons biography, they will always have a secret inner life, that intrapersonal relationship that they hold very close and this book cleverly reminds us of this.

Fred is a family cat with owners who think he is the laziest cat in the world, but who knows what goes on after dark? The family and children grieve for Fred after his death and night after night, hear the mewing of cats in the garden “Meaow meaow, meoooo, oh waily waily woooo….” as they mourn the passing of the Fred they knew- a cat pop star with a secret life.

Using a comic strip format, we watch as Sophie and Nick join in the funeral celebrations with his friends and fans who have come far and wide to pay their respects to a very cool cat and, in the process, we see his owners learn all about the life of a cat they thought they knew. In this, the book proves a useful jumping off point to the idea that when somebody dies we all have our own relationship with that person, our own memories and together, they go some of the way towards true appreciation of a person and their life. None of us have true ownership of another loved one and understanding that we are not the only ones to grieve might help a sad child feel a little less alone in their bereavement.

Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson

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The guilt and anger felt by children when somebody they love dies are profoundly unsettling and frightening and in this superb book, Wilson ensures that Vicky, killed in a car accident, can also show anger at her own life being cut short. Jade, the friend left behind struggles with guilt, wondering if their argument triggered Vicky’s death- a classic display of magical thinking so common in children. Wilson personifies this in the form of the dead Vicky continuing to inhabit the life of her friend, following her around, trying to remain involved inserting herself into her new friendships and hindering her attempts to adapt to the loss of her best friend. Eventually Jade comes to the realisation that as much as she loves Vicky, she also has to move on with her life, a decision which can invoke yet more guilt for any of us in a similar situation. Vicky realises that her idealisation of her dead friend denies the essential truth of her- she was a human with all of the glorious and real flaws of that condition. When she accepts this, she is set free and able to find a comfortable place in her psyche for the memory of her dead friend.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

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Award-winning picture book star Oliver Jeffers explores themes of love and loss in this life-affirming and uplifting tale. Once there was a girl whose life was filled with wonder at the world around her then one day something happened that made the girl take her heart and put it in a safe place. However, after that it seemed that the world was emptier than before. But would she know how to get her heart back?

In this deeply moving story, Oliver Jeffers deals with the weighty themes of love and loss with an extraordinary lightness of touch and shows us, ultimately, that there is always hope.

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford Smith

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With a design that is clearly influenced by the two Williams- Morris and Blake- the Fox and the Star is a children’s book which adults will be moved by and enjoy too. It is particularly inspired by Blake’s poem Eternity – “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy; / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sun rise” – and Bickford Smith’s story tells of the forest-dwelling Fox, who loses, and mourns for, his friend Star. If you hold onto something you value too tightly, you risk losing it but learning the lesson that when you love deeply, you have to let the love object go is a hard one and especially hard for Fox.

Teeming with life and haunted by isolation, the contrasts between the two and the pain this can cause us is an important and central theme to the story. Fox is an innocent creature, trying to carve a space in the world and a total opposite to the traditional depiction of foxes in literature- itself an important lesson about stereotyping.