Children’s Author Michael Rosen sits down with Elaine Bermitz to discuss his writing career to date.
Looking surprisingly fit and healthy after his ordeal during the pandemic, Michael Rosen talked to me about his remarkable career in children’s fiction and radio presentation. As engaging over Zoom as he is in every walk of life Michael Rosen is modest about his achievements: “I didn’t start off writing fiction. I did a year at medical school before I decided it wasn’t for me.
“I had always written short stories, basing them mainly on those of my favourite authors; EE Cummings, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, and Carl Samberg. This last author gave me a voice. By that I mean he taught me how to write as I spoke: directly throughout pages of the book to the reader. It has allowed me to communicate directly with my audience and has been the most valuable tool for me over the years. If I can’t say, it I can’t write it.”
James Joyce showed him how to write in a stream of consciousness manner, worrying less about the meaning of the sentence and more about the thoughts that lay behind it, and DH Lawrence’s poetry allowed him to write confessionally.
“I started off with plays and sketches, mainly funny and in a sort of Jasper Carrot type exaggerated autobiographical style and to my amazement my career took off. It became like being on an escalator, a series of upward going journeys, one after another.
“Children responded best to this direct form of writing and I concentrated on them, because I loved the style, but I used to find going into schools hard, reading my work in a formal way until a headmaster showed me what to do. He read my poems like a play, inviting the children to join in if they wanted and from then on, I performed rather than read them, being involved with the story not the form. Quentin Blake and Helen Oxenbury’s illustrations have helped bring life to the poems and I have hardly ever stopped writing since.
“For the BBC I have contributed to a lot of programmes. Mainly presenting Treasure Islands’ from 1989 to 1997 and Word of Mouth for adults from 1998 until now. The latter is for adults and is just me talking about words-their importance, their influence and how people use them.”
Tragically Michael’s second son Eddie was a victim of meningitis in 1999, dying in his sleep from the disease.
Finding it impossible to carry on being happy without acknowledging his grief for his loss lead him to write ‘Michael Rosen’s Sad Book’ – a non-fiction book for children which faces the subject honestly and
suggests ways of getting round the burden of sorrow. Illustrated by Quentin Blake it touches young and old as he meant it to.
That quality is Michael Rosen’s gift to the literary world. A further book ‘We’re All Going on a Bear Hunt’ shows his ethos more clearly. He never pretends that life is not difficult, but he never gets depressed about its challenges. He faces them, with the help of his friends and his optimistic nature, using words as his tools and Helen Oxenbury’s pictures to overcome their threat. He wrote the book in 1989, and it has never been out of print since. It has been adapted for television, radio, and theatre many times: a testament to its popularity.
Though Michael has faced many challenges in life – most publicly his battle against COVID-19 – his transparent optimism and absolute faith that obstacles are there to be overcome brings joy to those who read or listen to his work.
One area which has come more to the fore recently has been that of his religious background and his lifelong search for the missing relatives about whose fate little had been said by his family, except that: “They were there before the war and they weren’t after.” His direct, honest approach to their loss and the incidental acceptance that those who wanted to kill all Jews exist and that if they had succeeded, he wouldn’t be here is heart-breaking in its simplicity.
In writing “The Missing” for those who already love him as a poet and author, he allows them to see the tragedy of racial hatred for what is an evil blight on innocent lives.
Michael Rosen is a British children’s author, poet, presenter, political columnist, broadcaster and activist who has written 140 books. He served as Children’s Laureate from 2007 to 2009.