The poet, author, broadcaster, former Children’s Laureate and lecturer explains why he suddenly feels the need to defend books.
What an odd thing to do: I find myself needing to defend children’s books. Why? Are they under attack? No. Are we faced with a wave of censorship? No. Then why the need?
I think books of all kinds flourish when they have space and time and people all round them. When they are surrounded by people telling us what to think about them before we’ve had a chance to decide for ourselves; or there are people telling us that we have to answer questions about them before we’ve finished reading them; or we are constantly being given extracts and asked questions about what we remember from what we’ve just read; or asked to put what happened into the ‘correct’ sequence; or to ‘explain’ why it’s ‘effective’ when we’re not even sure it is effective; or we are supposed to label words with strange sounding Latinate names; or we are supposed to be able to guess what was going on in the author’s mind when they chose this or that phrase; or we have so much homework involving staring at printed pages of one sort or another… then it’s very hard to love books.
Infact, some – by no means all – schools have decided that as books aren’t loved so much as they used to be, there’s no point in having a library. First, make it harder to love books, then make it impossible to get hold of them.
So I’ll defend books, magazines, graphic novels, non-fiction and online words and wordings of many kinds.
I’ll defend it all like this: the world is a complex place. We expend a good deal of effort and time describing it to each other, often in the form of short bursts of narrative: ‘Do you know what happened to me today?’ Over thousands of years, we have developed hundreds of other different shapes and patterns to talk about the world, many of which are based on these daily interchanges. These shapes and patterns offer us safe places in which to experiment with emotions and values. We can seemingly accompany people, creatures and beings – real or fictional – going through tests, dangers, risks, delights, challenges and worries. We can seemingly transgress, overcome, win out, lose, be humiliated, survive. And, because it’s only a narrative on paper, in the air or digitised, it’s not actually us. It’s stuff that we co-create with the authors.
‘As we read, we can make analogies with our own lives or with other things we read and watch. This is part of how we find out where we want to be in relation to others.’
As we read, we can make analogies with our own lives or with other things we read and watch. This is part of how we find out where we want to be in relation to others. It’s part of how we form ‘schemas’ or ‘constructs’ about self and society.
Because I’m talking here about words on the page or screen – even if accompanied by pictures, music, dance or any other form – there is a particular speed and shape to what we do. Usually, this involves something slower and more deliberate than the moving image. The speed is also controlled by the reader’s eye and hand. There’s an autonomy about that. I could even argue that it represents some kind of respect given to the reader by the people who create books: you do it at whatever speed you like, and, within reason, wherever you like.
I’m all for schools giving children and school students strategies for enjoying all this, for discovering aspects of what it’s all about and how it all works, provided that such strategies don’t nullify the need for it. I was very lucky to have had school and home experiences that did indeed support and foster a desire to find out what was in books.
So, thank you Mum for reading me Peter Rabbit and Raff the Mynah Bird, Miss Goodall for reading us Emil and the Detectives, Mr Scotney for Hue and Cry, my dad for Great Expectations and Catch-22, Mr Emmans for Les Mains Sales and Candide, Ian Donaldson for Jonathan Swift and Alan Ward for Beowulf (in the original!).
Michael Rosen’s latest book Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, is published by Bloomsbury, £5.99.