Michael Rosen talks to Claire Gill about wading in streams, Peter Rabbit, the Welfare State and the importance of leaving gaps.
Do you think that children today need a bit more help to understand how to get to grips with the world?
There is lots of confusion about the world and it is exhausting for children, and yes things are very different now to how they were when I was growing up. I know that you have to be careful not to map one’s own life onto anyone elses. When I was growing up, my parents abandoned me at the weekends, in the nicest possible way. They just left us to hang around, wander about. I’d go and meet my friend and off we would go to the park. We used to spend hours wading in a stream – just like in Enid Blyton. There were no mobile phones so you couldn’t tell anyone where you were. You just came home for tea when you were hungry and that was that.
Is it more dangerous now than it was?
Actually I think that it’s as dangerous now as it has ever been, in many ways. Think of Dickens’ London, it was like Babylon filled with teenage gangs, hideous people lurking around every corner. If you look into Dickens he’s implying at very dark relationships in a lot of his books and London is a very scary place, as it is now. But something is different now after nearly 70 years of the welfare state, society belongs to all of us.
People matter much more than they ever did. Everyone matters and everyone is concerned. Or almost everyone, we are concerned for each other and that cannot be anything but at good thing.
Does that concern end up affecting our children?
You can over teach and over worry but children can be smarter than we grown ups all filled up with worry think. Sometimes you do need to let them make their own mistakes, whilst making sure you furnish them with the basic common sense about crossing a road at a zebra crossing, and not mucking about on the edge of a wall. Things like that.
How can reading children’s books help?
Well.... the safest and most interesting of playgrounds, short of getting a paper cut, is a book. A book isn’t likely to do you any harm and you end up seeing all sorts of things you wouldn’t find in the park.
And the best thing about stories in books is that you are co-imagining them. I remember a Russian folk tale that I read when I was little and the old man dies at the end and I was really sad. It was horrifying to me but I realised a sense of safety in the fact that we did it together, me and the author we did it and it was ok. Arthur Rackham’s drawings are utterly terrifying but it was up to you to make it into something relevant to you.
Children’s books by and large have a reassuring element to them. A sense of home. The boy achieves an understanding in A Monster Calls despite the tragic outcome he has a resolution. The status quo is conserved, that is the point of children’s books.
The conserving element is powerful, and we need and want that.
In adult literature there is no such thing. Particularly in modern play writing, Kafka, the world is terrible. Go out and deal with it, which is against the basic structure of Greek Tragedy. There is always someone who comes on at the end with their broom and cleans things up. ‘Don’t worry about all these dead people everywhere. It’s all going to be ok. The new order will restore peace and calm’. It’s not like that anymore. Or rarely.
But childrens books things tend to all work out ok, just about.
Is it important that reading books with children is a collaborative activity?
Very important that a book doesn’t end on the last page. This is where the conversation should begin. The chat. The point of the book discussing the issues that have been raised.
Group discussion is essential. That’s how you find out what someone meant and sometimes you go beyond that, so that each discussion gives the book a new life, another meaning.
It come alive.
There is a point of negotiation when reading with a child. Take Peter Rabbit for example, he does get back home, but he hasn’t got his coat. There is one illustration that remains so vivid in my mind of Mr McGregor, very small at the end of the garden path with a face like thunder and his garden rake raised in hot pursuit of the naughty Peter.
This is when the time comes to talk about the dangers, why did Peter Rabbit go into the garden when his mum specifically told him not to.
Which do you think is easier for children to respond to, poetry or prose?
A lot of my poetry is performative and I love to act it out, they are a bit like scripts and when I listen to some of the kids who are saying my poems out loud, they live them, give them a life of their own, each time they make them and remake them with their voices and their bodies and I think that is why poetry is a good way to spark discussion because you’ve got everyone listening with their own voices and bodies in response to the performer.
Fiction is slightly different, you carry the scenes with you rather than the actual words, which then lends itself to a slightly different interpretation.
There is a poem of mine in Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly & Gravy about a van, and I’ve often been asked about what was the van all about, and so I ask them? What do you think the van was about?
If you create a certain image which has lots of gaps it leaves space to interpret.
What is the importance of leaving gaps?
There is something very important about non-resolution and when we write we leave gaps for the reader to interpret the less specific themes.
It’s the taking of time which is so important, when you read, not just to snap the book shut when you are done but to talk things through.
Is there anyone particular who is the master of the ‘gap’ in the same way of the Pinter pause?
Maurice Sendak is the most exquisite author with the power of a vagueness that leaves so much open ended. Where the Wild Things Are is a very mysterious book while being one of the best books every written for children. He leaves a great number of gaps.
After Max had tamed the wild things and become King of all things he wanted to go back to where ‘someone loved him best of all.’ Now that is a very interesting use of word, and very deliberate use of word ‘someone’ not Mummy or Daddy or the dog but ‘someone’ – the boy Max is yearning for is attachment and this moment of wanting to find a place where ‘someone’ could love him. So open ended. A gap that might be filled in by each and every reader in their own way.
Is there any particular piece of advice that you have been given that you feel is essential to share with everyone?
Yes, absolutely, it is to be CURIOUS. My Mum and Dad always wanted us to keep asking questions, be curious, wonder what is round the corner, why did someone say something and through the questions will be more questions. And you aren’t just asking questions in order to get the answers. Never stop questioning. It’s the way through everything. Everyone is entitled to ask questions. So please everyone, don’t stop, even when it drives your Mum or Dad or teacher mad, keep asking, about everything.