Spotlight: Michael Rosen

Subi Shah discusses courage, grief and cultural struggle with British author Michael Rosen.
Photo: David Levene

When my eldest child Ibrahim was very small, he had to visit the dentist for his first check-up. He was absolutely terrified of what might happen, having heard horrifying stories from his friends about injections, drills and bloody tooth extractions.

In the waiting room, I tried to reassure Ibrahim that everything would be just fine. Looking for a distraction, I picked up a book from the coffee table: We’re Going on A Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen, and began to read: ‘We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!’ Meanwhile the characters find their walk interrupted by long grass, mud and other challenges.

The words seemed to resonate with Ibrahim and calm was restored. I hope even now, some 20 years later, Ibi still takes courage from those words, as I do. This is the magic of former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen’s writing.

When I discuss this memory with him, Rosen nods sagely: ‘Yes, there is a basic existential idea in the lines about how things we dread, dislike or fear sometimes have to be gone through. I like that idea.’

There is a basic existential idea in We’re Going on A Bear Hunt about how things we dread, dislike or fear sometimes have to be gone through. I like that idea

Indeed, Rosen has gone through a lot in his 77 years. Today a much-loved writer of some 140 books which have been translated into 42 languages, he was raised in humble circumstances. Born to poor Jewish parents in London’s East End, Rosen has spent the past three decades trying to piece together his family tree, the branches of which were brutally cut by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

‘I discovered two French uncles who were deported to Auschwitz,’ Rosen explains. ‘My Polish relatives had mostly been killed. Archives threw up documents like the arrest of my father’s uncle Martin, including details of his appearance, clothing and smug letters between French administrators and the Nazi officials. It was simultaneously appalling and satisfying that I’d brought my relatives out of invisibility.’

Rosen poured this experience into two books: The Missing and On the Move: Poems About Migration. ‘I wrote these for my young audience,’ he explains. ‘That’s important to me. That looks to the future.’

I wonder what Rosen’s thoughts are on the refugee and migrant crisis unfolding throughout Europe today. Are there parallels to be drawn between his family’s past and how refugees are treated in the 21st century?

‘Maybe I wouldn’t have been as alert to the politics of the refugee crisis if my own relatives had not been refugees themselves,’ he says. ‘Today, our government is stirring absurd and irrational fears against desperate foreigners arriving on our shores in small boats. This false category of “illegal migrants” is dangerous. Humans without passports are not “illegal” anything!’

Rosen is also a fierce defender of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), and the right to basic healthcare. After contracting Covid-19 in 2020, Rosen was cared for in an NHS hospital. He lay in a medically-induced induced coma for 40 days and 40 nights. ‘I know it sounds Biblical,’ he jokes. Rosen is always joking, always serious.

From notes made during bed-bound moments of lucidity, medical records and emails from his wife Emma, he later collated Many Different Kinds of Love, shortly followed by a memoir exploring grief and loss called Getting Better. I read both tomes as ‘love letters’ to the NHS which Rosen feels is being eroded in two main ways: one being a push for wealthy people to pay for private healthcare, the other outsourcing clinical services to private companies.

‘The corrupt thing here is that this has never been put to a vote,’ he says. ‘Someone said to me recently Getting Better is tribute to the art of resistance, as I’d resisted being dragged into depression over the death of my son Eddie.’

Eddie died of meningitis in 1999 aged just 18. Rosen later published Michael Rosen’s Sad Book in his memory. To my mind it is a not only a tribute to his much-loved son, but also a guide for parents struggling to explain feelings of grief and loss to their young children.

‘You know, even in this computer age, reading and writing has its place,’ says Rosen. ‘Reading is a powerful tool that the human race invented, as a way of preserving thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions. It’s good for chewing over things but also good for slow, rational and logical thought.

‘I hope my young readers across the world will read, read and read again. Maybe they will find a pencil and some paper on which to write their thoughts and ideas down. I’d be so glad about that.’