If you've got little grandchildren (or even big ones), chance are you first came across Michael Rosen through them. Author of the much–loved children's classic, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake, The Book of Bad Things and Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, he's been the source of many rapt attentions and plenty of giggles during storytime with the grandchildren.
This month, a brand new exhibtion opens at the Discover Children's Story Centre in his honour, called Michael Rosen's Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake and Bad Things! that allows children to delve into the world of his stories and poems. So as he inspires kids to giddily step inside chocolate cakes, swishy swashy through a bear hunt and scribble down their own imagnary places, we caught up with the man behind the wacky and wonderful words.
Where did the idea come from for this new exhibition?
The late founder of the Discover Centre, Sally Goldsworthy, contacted me to say they'd like to do this exhibition and I thought it sounded so exciting. If you're lucky, you get various honours in your life and this ranks with the best. This isn’t just something you gawp at. It's so interactive that every little part of it will be things that children can do themselves. And I think that way of learning is the very best.
I want children to come away feeling from the exhibition feeling that they can write poems. So there’s videos, books, word games and in every little corner there will be things to say out loud or learn and ideas for writing. Everywhere there will be triggers along with post-its and paper to encourage them to scribble stuff down.
A lot of what you see in the exhibition also reflects both my stories and my life, mainly because my work is usually based on my life. So there’s a school room because I’ve written school poems. And there’s my grandparent’s room because I’ve written about that and it also had a big influence on me. The only exception is Bear Hunt because believe it or not I’ve never actually been on a bear hunt.
Who inspired you to write growing up?
For me, my grandparents' stories opened up a world that was so different to mine that facsinated me. The only way to describe how this other world felt when they introduced it to me is like another room.
I think it's the case for a lot of children going to their grandparents’ house, where they discover that there is this part of their grandparents’ lives that is invisible to them. Because children live in the now. And then there’s this other stuff. And it’s maybe years later until you piece this together.
The thing is that my grandparents could speak another language- Yiddish. So if I went out with my grandfather he spoke with his friends in Yiddish and I would stand there open-mouthed that this man who could speak to me was suddenly in another place. They told stories about things that happened to them in the 1920s and 1930s in the Jewish community when they experienced attacks in the street for example.
They also told stories about a market in the East End that sold live chickens and I remember my mum and grandmother talking about how my mum didn’t like my grandmother haggling over the price of a live animal. To me, used to Sainsbury’s packed chicken, this seemed almost medieval as I tried to imagine my mother as a little girl standing next to my grandmother talking in a different language with this live chicken sitting there. It just came alive for me.
The other thing they talked about was baths because they didn’t have bathrooms in the 1930s and so they went to public baths. And that just seemed incredible that you would go and have a bath in this other place. My dad would talk about how he used to go to the baths with his grandfather. Here, you didn’t operate the taps yourselves– they were in the corridor. So if you wanted more hot water you had to call for it. My dad would talk about hearing them call out ‘more hot water in number 3 please’ followed by this ‘aaaah’ noise.
So it felt odd that there was this other place that was in their awareness but not in mine. You couldn’t go there. Apart from anything else, Poland, where they were from, was a communist world and you couldn’t get in and out when I was young. And anyway that way of life they discussed had ended with the holocaust so there was no way to go and see what they talked about. I’m always struck by this when talking to children when they’ve gone to other places that their parents refer to. They can go visit and there’s some aspect of it that’s still there. But when I was a kid this was only something I could look up in books or on old films. For me it was more mythic.
Was your writing an attempt to access or recreate that other place they talked about? A way of getting into that other room?
Some of my writing certainly was a way to get to that imaginative place. Quite a lot of writing is about recovery. You grab stuff that happened and find a way of freezing it. So it’s a bit like an act of preservation. Even for fantasy writers, quite often the ingredients for a fantasy come from these things. If you think of someone like Tolkien, he was recovering stuff to do with northern Europe and ancient myths and stories that he knew. We all do it. It’s a bit like archaeology- you’re digging out old stuff in your mind in order to make new stuff.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
About the time I was 11-12 I thought I really like writing. Then around the age of 16, I thought I’d like to be one.
My mum, dad and brother were story tellers and story readers. My mum read to me as early as I can remember. My dad read to me as a teenager. And my brother read to me in the bedroom. He would act out stuff and read funny books to me, like the Molesworth books that sent up school life. We would then make up other stories to do with it about our own school.
He was very good at acting out people he knew like our parents and friends and taught me a lot that was useful for my writing. Looking back, it was like a training in stand-up comedy. But he probably just enjoyed making me laugh.
So if you could dive into the world of one children’s story, which would it be?
As a child I was desperate to be in any book from the Tudor times so I read a variety of historical fiction books from people like Rosemary Sutcliff and Cynthia Harnett where you went out with Shakespeare’s players or were hanging around Mary Queen of Scots. This fed into why I like Shakespeare so much. So I think I’d be happily somewhere around where I could nip in and see a Shakespeare play.
What other children's writers do you love?
I have a big interest in Roald Dahl, from reading his books to my children. I've written a book about him actually called The Fantastic Mr Dahl.
Whenever you read a book out loud to children, you get a sense of how sentences are put together as well as plots and timing. It’s like performance so you see how a writer constructs things. If a writer describes something too quickly, or too slowly, the child doesn’t get it. But with Roald Dahl his timing is unbelievably good. Each sentence works as a piece of performance.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
I’d quite like to play rugby for England.
But more seriously, I’m also in the middle of a series I’m writing about a bloke called Uncle Gobb. I’ve written two, I’ve got a draft for the third and an idea for the fourth. And I would love to write ten of those.
We're in the middle of our Kindness Campaign, spreading the seeds of goodwill, at Yours magazine. So we wondered– what's the kindest thing anyone's ever done for you?
In 1999, my son died of meningitis and I went back to work as a freelancer at the BBC. Obviously everyone at work knew. But there was something about the way they treated me which wasn’t let’s sit down and talk about it or poor you, that was, in fact, immensely helpful.
As a freelancer you have a lot of time goofing about– you don’t have a routine–so it was hard to go into this place where everyone knew and had obviously talked about it, and people with children felt absolutely awful– you know they think, jesus what if that happened to me. But there was something about the kind and straightforward way they treated me and everyone worked with me that was absolutely brilliant. It was a real testimony to how it’s possible to treat people.
- Michael Rosen's Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake and Bad Things is at the Discover Children's Story Centre, London now until April 10, 2016. To book, call 0208 536 5555 or visit www.gammabookings.com/discover
- Pics: Mike Massaro