Michael Rosen: ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ author talks to Your Move
Literature is about to take its rightful place under the spotlight as World Book Day is almost upon us.
To mark the occasion Your Move talks to popular children’s author Michael Rosen, who displayed his interactive family exhibition ‘Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake & Bad Things’ in Liverpool.
Interview by Mark Langshaw
World Book Day takes place on 2 March. What does this yearly event mean to you?
The great thing about World Book Day is that it’s one of those days where you can create a buzz about books. Literature has to compete with a lot of other media and maybe there isn’t the glamour of Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes attached to it, so we have to create our own buzz.
It’s an occasion where everybody is talking about books and if that hype carries through to the rest of the year, then hurrah for World Book Day.
How important are interactive experiences like your ‘Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake & Bad Things’ project to help draw children towards books?
It’s great when there are other ways you can experience a story besides the book, especially when that involves putting the reader into the story.
We have books, television and stuff online but with things like theme parks, interactive exhibitions, museums and face-to-face storytelling, you experience the tale in a deeper way – your entire body is involved.
Children are very physical – they like to wriggle when there’s rhythmic music playing, for example – but when we get older we’re more inhibited.
It’s vital when it comes to words and literacy that children learn this stuff belongs to them – not to some posh person in Oxford or Cambridge, not to a dictionary – words belong to you. If you can pass that onto children, you’re passing on something very important.
Did you have any idea that your 1989 book ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ would have so much longevity when you wrote it?
I had no idea. ‘Bear Hunt’ began life as a sort of folk song I would perform. The Brownies used to sing a version of it and so did American kids at summer camp so I played it as part of my act when I used to visit schools.
The boss of Walker Books saw me do it and he said ‘that would make a good picture book’. I adapted it, and then it was Helen Oxenbury who made the book in that shape and form.
When I looked at it I had no idea it would have this incredible life. Maybe she did because she’s brilliant, but I didn’t know it would take off the way it did. I’m not very good at guessing what people will make of the books I’m involved with.
What is it about the city of Liverpool that has made it a good fit for the exhibition?
I’ve been here several times recently. I’ve played at the Liverpool Philharmonic a couple of times in the last two or three years and in my experience the city is amazing because it draws on powerful traditions, particularly influences from Ireland and Wales, mixing that with Lancashire and Cheshire as well as its roots in Caribbean life.
The combination of these different strands means Liverpool children come at you in a very informal, vocal, oral way. You go to some places in the UK and find children who are quite shy and reserved but in Liverpool they want to have a laugh. That Irish term ‘craic’ is appropriate because I think they realise my performances are my form of the craic and they want to share that.
What are the key elements that make a good children’s story?
If only we knew. You can never tell! I was just talking earlier about this odd little book called ‘Goodnight Moon’. There’s no story and it has funny little drawings that you might not think are even well drawn at first glance, yet it has sold millions and millions of copies since coming out in 1946.
Despite having little plot, somehow or other there’s this magical quality which children aged about four or five seem to adore. You can put an enormous amount of effort into creating something you think is similar and it doesn’t get anywhere. It’s a mystery!
It is very difficult to recommend books for youngsters because every child is different, but in my opinion the best thing you can do is take your kid to a library or a book shop and let them choose for themselves – let them do that again and again.
Obviously if there’s a book you loved as a child, try and introduce them to that because your own enthusiasm may rub off, but the most important thing is letting your child choose.
“Liverpool children come at you in a very informal, vocal, oral way… They want to have a laugh.”
Which stories were read to you during your childhood?
My mum read the Beatrix Potter stories to me – ‘Squirrel Nutkin’, ‘Peter Rabbit’ and ‘Tailor of Gloucester’ I absolutely adored. I also enjoyed the Puffin picture books, particularly one about an old Chinese man who teaches kids the Chinese alphabet.
Beatrix Potter did it for me back then. There may be children today who think ‘what’s the point in that?’ but for me, they were lovely.
What is your ideal writing environment?
I can shut myself away and work solidly for six or seven hours at a time. I usually write from an office in an old factory. That environment works for me because I like the fact that it feels like there are other busy people in the same building. I have thousands of books there and can immerse myself in them.
That environment is what enabled me to write a book for adults called ‘The Disappearance of Emile Zola’ about the eponymous French writer, which came out recently.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve written a story about another bear and I’m waiting to see the pictures that will accompany it. I’ve also done a book based on my ‘Chocolate Cake’ story which is being illustrated by Kevin Waldron, and I’m working on two sequels to my children’s book ‘Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed’.