Q&A with Michael Rosen

We speak to the professor of children’s literature at Goldsmiths, University of London

March 13, 2014

Source: G.Robertson/Guardian News & Media Ltd

Michael Rosen is an award-winning children’s author and poet and former British Children’s Laureate. In November last year he was appointed professor of children’s literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is currently developing a new practical and theoretical MA in children’s literature starting in September. His latest book is Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Harrow on 7 May 1946.

How has this shaped you?
I am very much a child of the London suburbs. All my schooling took place in Wealdstone, Pinner, Harrow Weald and Watford. The suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s were edgy, nervy places, full of conflicts – personal, social, cultural, educational and political. I liked it. 

Describe your new job in 140 characters.
Lucky sod is made welcome to be prof of a subject he has spent his whole life immersed in.

How valuable is children’s literature to the literary canon?
Most adult readers were made into the readers they are by the “repertoire” of reading they did as children. The link, then, between children’s literature and adult literature is not so much via the writers as through the reading habits of the readers. That said, there are various key children’s literature texts that have informed adult writing – most notably perhaps, the Alice books; although I would guess that much of the readership of crime fiction was inducted into the genre through Enid Blyton.

What’s your definitive work of children’s literature?
Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744). This is the world’s first collection of what we now call nursery rhymes and it’s the first children’s book that has absolutely no moralistic or didactic purpose. The nursery rhyme canon is a powerful set of tiny stories giving us many tales of unhappy happenstance, oddity and foolishness and this little book was instrumental in giving us all this pleasure.

What one thing is holding back children’s education most in this country?
The system of high stakes testing, exams and league tables. This creates and enforces a curriculum, fosters massive anxiety around learning, guarantees failure to the majority and puts schools, teachers and pupils into competition with each other.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Most recently, it’s to discover that the problem in education is not Michael Gove, but that Parliament has ceded so much power to the office of Secretary of State for Education. Anyone who now takes on that job thinks that he or she has the wisdom to know what’s best for children, teachers and parents. This is both very undemocratic and very odd.

How does it feel to follow in your mum’s footsteps and teach at Goldsmiths?
There’s a Yiddish word “to kvell” which means to “swell with pride”. I’m kvelling.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Joan Littlewood. As a small boy I was taken to see the shows she made at Theatre Royal Stratford and so saw her versions of Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol and the folk opera Big Rock Candy Mountain in which the great folklorist, Alan Lomax, played the narrator. For a short period I got to know her just as she was trying to devise a show around the tragedy of Ronan Point, the high-rise block in East London that collapsed. She was visionary, committed and a great humorist. The theatre she made always had the capacity to stir you up.

What keeps you awake at night?
The thing I didn’t finish the day before.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
First wish was to be a farmer. Later, it was to be an English teacher. Then it was to be a doctor. Or an actor.

What’s your biggest regret? 
I didn’t spot that my son had meningitis.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
Life is full of doors. Some suddenly appear. Some you work hard to get. An undergraduate degree is a door. Once you’ve got it, you can walk through it and whatever’s on the other side is not the same as what you had before. For many people, going through the door feels better than not going through the door.

‘Revolting Rhymes’ or ‘Paradise Lost’?
Revolting Rhymes.

Have you ever written about a university professor?
Yes, I adapted the German folktales about Till Eulenspiegel, who is a trickster figure of country peasant origins. On one occasion he takes on the professors of Prague and bamboozles them with his answers and even starts to teach the world’s most unteachable pupil – a donkey – how to read.

Do you expect your induction into academia to inspire a raft of new material?
Anyone who writes the stuff we call literature ends up twisting, bending, translating their experiences into something else, so I expect so. As it happens, my version of the Till Eulenspiegel stories will come back into print fairly soon, so I’ve rather set myself up to be bamboozled too.

Can you write us a brief higher education poem?
Just before finals
you had a dream.
In the dream, you said that your tutors
threw you off the top of the university library.
I nipped out to check.
They hadn’t.
I should have told you. 


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