Prolific children's writer, Michael Rosen, was born in Middlesex in 1946 and studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University.
His first work was a play, Backbone (1968), performed at the Royal Court Theatre while he was still a student. He also wrote poetry and journalism for the student newspaper and magazine during his time at Oxford.
From 1969-1972, he was a trainee at the BBC, working in radio drama, and on Play School and Schools Television. He then spent three years at the National Film School, publishing his first book of poetry, Mind Your Own Business, in 1974. This book was not originally written for children, but appeared on Deutsch's children's list, and from that point on, his career was set. Since 1976, he has been writing, performing, teaching, and appearing on radio and television. He also writes regularly for The Guardian.
His books include fiction and picture books for children, including the recent Michael Rosen's Sad Book (2004); Totally Wonderful Miss Plumberry (2006); and Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy (2006). His picture book, We're Going On a Bear Hunt (1989), won multiple awards. His poetry books include Quick Let's Get Out of Here (1983); You Wait Till I'm Older Than You (1996); Lunch Boxes Don't Fly (1999); Uncle Billy Being Silly (2001); and No Breathing in Class (2003) - all of which are based on his own childhood.
He has also edited many anthologies for children, including The Kingfisher Book of Children's Poetry (1985); Poems for the Very Young (1993); and Classic Poetry, an illustrated collection (1998), and has written two non-fiction books for children about Shakespeare and Dickens.
His non-fiction for adults includes books for teachers, such as Did I Hear You Write? (1989) and A Year with Poetry (1997). He has also recently written three books of autobiography entitled, Carrying the Elephant (2002); This Is Not My Nose (2004) and In the Colonie (2005), and he edited these and added new poems, for a Selected Poems (2007).
Michael Rosen's work for radio and television includes writing and presenting for BBC Radio 3 and 4 and for the BBC World Service, including the Treasure Islands, Best Words, Meridian Books and Word of Mouth programmes. He won a Sony Radio Gold Award for his series On Saying Goodbye. He has written and presented many single radio documentaries including profiles of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Joan Littlewood, Bertolt Brecht, Maurice Sendak, Le Corbusier and 'Dr. Seuss' (Theodore Geisel) along with documentaries on the Second World War German youth movement, the Edelweisspiraten, the fantasy writers of Oxford University, Robert Browning's 'Pied Piper', the unpublished poetry of Ogden Nash, and series on innovative children's books and sculptors' materials. He created the children's television series, Black and White and Read all Over and Everybody Here for Channel 4, and the Channel 5 documentary on the Seven Stories Museum of Children's Literature in Newcastle, and has presented several series for educational television, such as Rosen's Poetry Attic and Reading Aloud.
Michael Rosen was one of the first poets to visit schools and is committed to the teaching of writing and the reading of literature in schools. He won the 1997 Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished services to children's literature, and received an honorary doctorate in 2005 from the Open University and another from Exeter University in 2007. He has a BA, MA and a Ph.D. for a doctorate completed in 1997 and is a visiting professor at London Metropolitan University and Middlesex University. He teaches at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a fellow of the English Assoiation and the Royal Society of Literature. He was appointed the Children's Laureate for 2007-2009.
In June 2007, Michael Rosen became the fifth Children’s Laureate -- he is the first poet to step into this prestigious role.
The idea for the Children’s Laureate came from a conversation between children’s author Michael Morpurgo and Ted Hughes, who was the Poet Laureate at the time. The two-year honour is bestowed upon outstanding writers who have made significant contributions to the field of children’s literature. After Quentin Blake, the second Children’s Laureate was Anne Fine (2001-03), followed by Michael Morpurgo (2003-05) and Jacqueline Wilson (2005-07).
Michael Rosen has written well over 100 books for children, mainly poetry but also novels, picture books and non-fiction books, including books about Shakespeare and Dickens, which provide children with wonderfully accessible introductions to these classic authors. Rosen is a charismatic, fun-loving character who was one of the first children’s writers to start doing school visits - something he still does regularly. He has always held strong views regarding the ways in which children learn, and he discusses this in Did I Hear You Write? (1989). In particular, he is critical of the ‘ “Jug-and-Mug” theory’ of education, in which the teacher pours knowledge into the ‘empty jug’ of the child’s mind.
Rosen’s role as Children’s Laureate thus gives him an ideal forum to voice his views. Nicholas Tucker’s 2007 interview with Rosen has been published in The Independent under the title ‘Why Michael Rosen will relish being the Children’s Laureate: With his delight in words, Michael Rosen can make politicians listen and children laugh’ (20 July, 2007). In this article, Rosen expresses his views about the way in which the National Curriculum favours ‘literacy as an end in itself, while pushing open-ended literary enjoyment into the sidelines’. He attacks the straight-jacket of the National Curriculum whenever he can: ‘And it may just be - fingers crossed - that we’re beginning to see something of a breakthrough here.’
Rosen, who also presents the BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘Word of Mouth’, which explores the English language, talks excitedly of his plans for his two years as Children’s Laureate:
'Well, I am going to do my best to release the reading of poetry from the vice-like grip of the literacy strategy by spreading the excitement of poetry through books, performances, festivals, internet, conferencing […] I would also like to help picture books find the larger audience they increasingly seem to be missing. And then I’ve got this idea for a series of literature trails […] showing young readers where their local writers and poets lived and worked.' (Nicholas Tucker, The Independent, 20 July, 2007)
The majority of Rosen’s writings, both poetry and prose, are delightfully humorous. His work embodies his intuitive understanding of children, for he is wholly in tune with his ‘inner child’. He frequently depicts the everyday world of children, validating their imaginative ways of thinking and being, and often lightly mocking adults who cannot empathise with the child’s point of view. His style of writing can, in some ways, be compared with that of Roald Dahl -- Rosen’s tone is more gentle, and his work does not contain the comic grotesque features that Dahl was so fond of, but both writers have a vivid, lively style which is bursting with energy and strongly conveys the author’s sheer delight in crafting words. They also share a tendency to ‘play’ with words, refusing to stick with sensible, conventional language.
In Did I Hear You Write? Rosen describes word-play as ‘the voice of the confused getting its own back, taking control of that seemingly powerful and dominating thing called adult language’. His poem, ‘What’s Your Name?’ from You Tell Me (1981), is an apt example of this:
'Rosen,R,O,S,E,N,With a silent Q, as in rhubarb.'
Rosen’s word-play is not limited to his poetry. In Arabian Frights and Other Gories (1994), he re-tells traditional fairytales in a nonsensical style, such as ‘Little Head Riding Pudd’: ‘One day, her mother said, “Little Head Riding Pudd, here is a jar of traffic jam to put on Fred Rolls. Take them to Bran. She’s ill and they will make her bitter”'
Rosen’s style is also very sensual, and a useful comparison can be made between Dahl’s description of the chocolate factory in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (1964) and Rosen’s poem ‘Chocolate Cake’ (from Quick Lets Get Out of Here, 1983). In both, the writing is intensely ‘alive’ and immediate, and the reader is invited to join in with the sensual experience:
'[Charlie] would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him.Oh, how he loved that smell!And, oh, how he wished he could go inside the factory and see what it was like!'
'Oh the icing on the topand the icing in the middleoohhhh ooo mmmm…………
…. a lovely feeling in my bellyMmmmmmmmmm.'
However, Rosen has also been criticised by traditionalists, as he comments in Did I Hear You Write?: ‘The “he-doesn’t-write-poetry” number’. His reaction to this displays a profound childlike wisdom: ‘Well, don’t call it poetry, then, call it “Bits” or “Stuff” ’. What is both delightful and important about Rosen’s style is that, like Dahl’s, it involves the reader in an active engagement with the text (as demonstrated in the two ‘chocolate’ quotations, above). This corresponds with Rosen’s criticism of the ‘Jug and Mug’ theory of learning - in his works, particularly his poems, children are encouraged to interact, to think and, most importantly, to feel in relation to the text, rather than simply being ‘told’ something.
Rosen’s poem ‘Mystery’ (Quick Lets Get Out of Here), embodies the lack of understanding between the child’s imaginative approach to life and the utilitarian adult’s emphasis on logic and factual learning. The child in the poem is enjoying himself, practising ‘pretending a bowl is a hat’. His father asks him a long series of questions, determined to discover what his son is doing and why. The response is a dramatic ‘NO ANSWER’ - for in this father’s logical mode of thinking, there is no explanation for the child’s behaviour. The father’s slightly cruel tone (‘The boy’s mad’) and his determination to find logical reasons (‘Why did you break it? Why do you need to practise?’) leave his son in silent humiliation. Yet the poem’s tone is clearly suggesting that it is the adult whose mind is limited and who has something to learn from his child, rather than vice versa.
Many of Rosen’s poems have a child persona as the narrative voice, but sometimes the narrator is an adult. In these poems, Rosen not only depicts imperfect adults, but encourages his child readers to develop understanding towards adult shortcomings. ‘Eddie in Bed’ (Quick Lets Get Out of Here) is one of various poems which depict loving but stressed-out parents struggling with conflicting emotions: ‘Sometimes I look really tired, because […] when most people are asleep […] I hear “waaaaaaaaaa.” ’ Rosen presents a humorous picture of Eddie’s temper tantrum, using the toddler’s repetitive refrains to create the rhythm of the poem:
'Wham“I want my biscuits”“What’s going on?”
Wham“I want my biscuits”“What’s going on?”'
The poem’s narrator is undoubtedly a loving father, yet he is also one who has uncertainties and makes mistakes (‘I take him into our bed […] What a stupid thing to do’), and displays a mixture of love and irritation: ‘Those toes are going / wiggle wiggly wiggly […] So by the time I get up […] I’m very tired and very cross.’
‘Eddie in Bed’, like many of Rosen’s poems, is based on his real-life son Eddie (one of seven children, many of whom feature in their father’s poems). Tragically, Eddie died of meningitis at the age of 18, and Rosen channelled his grief into writing an award-winning book about bereavement, Michael Rosen's Sad Book (2004). The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake, who has illustrated many of Rosen’s books throughout the years. It is aimed at children - though it could equally be used by adults - and it presents a frank but heartfelt account of the emotions aroused by bereavement. He does not present any rose-tinted happy ending, but rather emphasises the importance of learning to live with the sadness, rather than expecting it to end. Eddie’s death also features strongly in Carrying the Elephant (2002), a collection of poems about Rosen’s life, from his own childhood memories to his terrible bereavement, through to his current life with his third wife and more young children.
Rosen’s work as a whole presents an enchanting child’s-eye-view of life. Though he lightly mocks adults, this is mostly done in a good-hearted way. He emphasises the importance of feelings and imagination and encourages children to explore their emotions and think for themselves, as he says in his poem ‘Chivvy’: ‘Grown-ups say […] Speak-up…Don’t stare…Don’t interrupt…Can’t you make your own mind up about anything?’ (You Tell Me).
Elizabeth O’Reilly 2007