Interview: Jenny Holder @JennyHolderLiv
If I were to be asked to name children’s writers who have had a huge impact on me over the years, one of the names at the top of the list would be Michael Rosen. As a trainee teacher I have strong memories of using poetry from his collection Centrally Heated Knickers to introduce new topics in Science.
After my father passed on, I felt really alone in my sense of grief and loss until I found Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (with illustrations by Quentin Blake). More recently, sharing A Great Big Cuddle (his poetry book for pre-schoolers, illustrated by Chris Riddell) with my two-year-old daughter has led not only to some lovely mother-daughter cuddles, but also to her developing a greater vocabulary and enjoying how funny and amazing the English language can be.
So, when HWRK offered me the opportunity to talk with Michael about his writing, the importance of books that make you laugh and the ways that teachers can encourage children to read for pleasure, I was naturally all in. I hope you enjoy this half as much as I did.
- The nature of your work is so diverse; writing for and performing for children, radio shows on language, teaching at university. Do you see these as separate jobs or different sides of the same coin?
- It’s a question I’ve often asked myself and I’m not sure I know the answer. One morning, I might be talking about in a very theoretical or academic way at the university about a subject related to language or literature. Then, just a few hours later, I could be performing We’re Going On a Bear Hunt for a group of three-year-olds.
The two acts seem so unrelated at first because the way you work in performance is so physical and so very different from academic work. However, it must be connected as it’s me doing it all.
- You write children’s books and poetry but you also have an academic interest as a Professor of Children’s Literature. Why are works written for children so important?
- They’re important because the foundations of everything that we see on TV, on films and that we read are laid down when we read as a child. For example; Enid Blyton’s books are, to an extent, manuals which teach us how to read whodunnits, detective books, adventures and thrillers. They’re full of the same principles of writing; there’s mysteries you have to unfold, red herrings that send you the wrong way.
A lot of the motifs, a lot of the ideas, scenes and scenarios from the thrillers we read as adults can be found in these works for younger readers. So, it’s a good reason to look at children’s books as they in actual fact reach right the way forward into the stuff we like as adults.
- A lot of your poetry is about you growing up. Was poetry an important part of your childhood?
- My parents absolutely adored poetry. It was sort of sacred to them. They did believe it was the most amazing way that language could be used, that could take you into other thoughts. However, for me, poetry all sounded quite mournful and had a lack of humour about it.
I got interested in it around 15 or 16, when my dad suddenly decided to do a bit of home schooling and started teaching me English Literature at home. We had an anthology produced by some American critics and I suddenly thought, “blimey… this stuff’s good”. But the seeds must have been sown earlier even though I was ignoring it.
- You’ve done a lot of work into funny writing. Do funny books get the same attention in mainstream media as more serious works?
- No, nowhere near. I love serious books, books that deal with the serious issues of our day, whether it’s climate change or race or generational/intergenerational stuff. However, it’s not that humour and humorous books don’t deal with these issues.
If you think about it this way, there’s not that much distance between Matilda and A Monster Calls. In A Monster Calls, the boy is trapped by this terrible thing of his mother dying. Similarly, Matilda is in a tragic situation; she’s totally trapped at home and in school and then she finds a way out of it.
These books use humour as a way of dealing with serious topics, using techniques such as hyperbole to throw light on these issues but it doesn’t mean that the issue itself and the raising of the questions isn’t just as serious.
- What are your favourites out of the funny books you’ve written?
- There’s a little sequence of stories I’ve written for Andersen Press such as Fluff the Farting Fish and Barking for Bagels that are all based around a child and an animal. They’re in that little bridge area, around the ages of seven to nine, when children are stopping being read to very much and are really taking pride in the fact that they can read by themselves.
It interests me that you can write stuff that deals with emotions that are relevant to that age, but it’s actually readable by the child themselves. When I’m writing these, I try to write them in such a way that draws them through the text, engaging the reader with questions, answers, thought bubbles and little comic bits illustrated by Tony Ross. Yes, I’m quite pleased with that little group of books and even smile when I read them myself.
- ‘Reading for pleasure’ is a term often heard in schools. What does it mean to you?
- I wish the term was ‘reading for pleasure for all’. I noticed when OFSTED produced their report Moving English Forward (2011) they used the phrase reading for enjoyment for all. That’s the key thing. The argument for reading for pleasure is that this is both emancipatory in terms of empathy and the wider world but also that it is connected to attainment. It’s a bit mechanical to talk in these terms but those children who don’t read books have less access to the curriculum.
- Where would you suggest teachers new to reading for pleasure start?
- The easiest and best way is for two or three teachers to get together and have a little mini-reading group, just chatting about books. They can talk about it from their own point of view or possibly talk about what their own child or class thought of it. Start small, try to make it regular and more often than not it will take hold.
- Many people (and mainstream media) depict digital media as detrimental to children’s literacy. Do you agree with this or is there a role mobile phones and new technology can play in encouraging young people to read/write?
- I’m always slightly thrown when people talk about a conflict between digital media and books. I use digital media to find recommendations of books, read them and then use websites to back up my findings. For me, it’s all connected up.
When it comes to children and digital media I think we have to show them that knowledge and ideas are not restricted to books. It’s a new form of critical literacy that we have to teach. They need to know that if the information comes from The British Library or Wellcome Museum that it can be trusted, but if it’s from someone called Jack who writes at Jack.com then, maybe, it isn’t.
- You have an incredibly popular YouTube channel you use to share your poetry with families and schools. How did this come about?
- I’ve always believed in performance. All through the ’70s and ’80s, I kept saying to people that we have a way of connecting up the word on the page with performance and modern media, through audio, video, TV, radio, performance. When my son qualified in film, he filmed me performing Going on a Bear Hunt for the Seven Stories Story Museum in Newcastle.
I suddenly realised as it got popular that this was the way to connect up the word on the page with the performance and the modern ways of distributing it. It then all fitted into place. This is a way of communicating these ideas and getting children, young people and adults to see that that performance is part of the way you make the word live. Living word. Living language.
- If you had one tip for teachers on using literature in the classroom, what would it be?
- Try to make a space, when you first bring a piece into the classroom, to enable the students to approach it in an open-ended way. No matter what notes you have to do later, give the students space to express their likes and dislikes, to relate it to other texts or experiences from their life.
I’m not saying this is the be-all and end-all or it will solve everything, but if you start there, there’s more chance that, whatever text is in front of you, the students have got an angle on it and have some investment in it, some reason why this piece may matter.