For more than 35 years, Londoner Michael Rosen has been writing books for children, primarily poetry anthologies and picture books. The latest offering from the author, who served as the U.K.’s Children’s Laureate from 2007-2009, was published by Candlewick last month. Filled with onomatopoeic sounds and illustrated by Kevin Waldron, Tiny Little Fly is a picture book about a clever fly who eludes large animals who try in vain to catch him (and who are viewed from a fly’s perspective before being revealed in full scale). Bookshelf caught up with Rosen on his recent visit to Boston.
Before you wrote picture books, you wrote poetry. How did you initially get hooked on that genre?
I started writing poems about the age of 16. I was studying English literature at school, and I also came from a family of educators. My mother and father were both teachers—she in primary and my dad in secondary schools. They were both very keen on literature and there was always a lot of poetry around me. I got to like it, and I thought I’d have a go. Also, my mother then had a poetry broadcast on educational radio, and that inspired me to write little pieces about my own childhood.
How did you first come to be published?
When I was at university at Oxford, I was still scribbling away, while also doing quite a bit of acting and directing. Then my writing took a different path and I wrote a play called Backbone. I was lucky enough that it went on to professional theater and was performed in London. And the play was eventually published in book form.
And what led you back to writing poems?
Somehow, after university, I found my way into a job at the BBC, and while I was working there I put together a pile of poems. And after my play came out as a book, I began hawking around the poetry collection—hoping publishers would be interested. It was a bit sticky to start off with, but in 1974 Mind Your Own Business, my first poetry collection for children, was published in Britain.
What would you say inspired the poems in that volume?
They were very much inspired by American poetry, from two different courses. My father was born in America, and had been in the American army in Germany during World War II. In 1945, he became a lecturer at Shrivenham American University in Oxfordshire, which was set up to educate Americans in the military when it became evident that peacetime was on its way. My father’s job was to teach American poetry, so I was exposed to a marvelous amount of that when I was young.
Which poets especially influenced your own verse?
Definitely Carl Sandberg and Langston Hughes, and also Kenneth Patchen, Muriel Rukeyser, and Louis Untermeyer. These poets were virtually unknown in Britain, and then Geoffrey Summerfield’s groundbreaking anthology of poetry for children, Voices, brought American poetry into classrooms in Britain. But I would say that my first work—and even my work now—is influenced by Sandberg more than anyone.
How was it that you made the switch from writing poetry to writing picture books?
After I’d published two volumes of poetry, publishers told me I should think of other things to write, and somehow I ended up in the picture book world. I’d been visiting schools doing poetry shows—kind of a mix of performing poems and stand-up comedy. And one day I was doing a performance of an American camp song, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” and David Lloyd of Walker Books was watching. He said, ‘I want to do a picture book of that song,’ and I said, ‘Go ahead.’ And he said, “No, I want you to do it.’ Well, I thought there can’t be much to that—just writing down the words to a song!
Were you right?
I wasn’t. As soon as I wrote the song down, I discovered it didn’t work on the page. I had to change things around, and find a new ending. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt turned into a very successful picture book, but I was only a tiny smidge responsible for that. What was largely responsible for its success was the brilliance and genius of Helen Oxenbury’s art.
Do you find writing poetry and picture books very different creative processes?
In a way yes, and in a way no. As I began to look at what it is that makes a picture book, I found that the text is very much like a poem, one that of course doesn’t have to rhyme. If you look at what I consider the best of all picture books, Where the Wild Things Are, and take the text away from the pictures, it is a narrative poem about a boy trying to deal with his rages. It leaves things out, which poems do, and has a lovely rhythm and repetition, and mysteries that you can only solve by using your imagination.
What inspired you to write Tiny Little Fly?
Running around in the back of my mind for some time was half a rhyme about a big dog and a fly, but I wasn’t sure where it had come from. I couldn’t find it on the Internet or anywhere. I started playing with the idea of having this tiny fly annoying big animals, then trying to escape. The people at Walker Books in London were keen, but seemed to like the idea rather than the execution. As I worked on it, I’d somehow lost the rhythm and the rhyme. So round we went with it, and ended up using the best of what there was at the beginning and what cropped up in the rewrites. And I’m very happy with it.
This is the first book you’ve done with Kevin Waldron. Were his illustrations what you’d envisioned for your story?
I don’t really envision art ahead of time. When Kevin came up with the roughs, I was overwhelmed. His illustrations reminded me of Chinese prints that are in the British Museum—images of animals that are full of mystery and mischievousness. Somehow the page isn’t big enough to contain his pictures, and I like that a lot. His art leaves room for guessing. There’s so much for a child to interpret.
I wear another hat—I teach a masters in children’s literature and I have a special interest in the medium of picture books. I like to get away from the idea that these artists are illustrators. In fact they are storytellers themselves, telling a story that may or may not directly correspond with the text. I’m always looking to see how illustrators keep a child’s eye active. The miracle of the best books is that a child’s eye is taken to all four corners of the page, to and fro. The child’s eye can’t rest.
Do you have any other books in the works?
Yes, I’m working on several picture books for Walker, and I’m writing a biography of Roald Dahl for children. I work with the Roald Dahl Foundation, and they asked me to write it.
And I’m also working on another idea, a book inspired by my father’s family. His father came from Poland to Massachusetts, where my father was born. Then his parents split up when he was two, and his mother took my dad and his siblings to live in England. So my father never got to know his dad, who stayed in Boston. My father never really tried to find out anything about his dad. Perhaps it hurt too deeply, perhaps he had a fantasy image of who his dad was. There’s a story here. I’m thinking of it as a book for 10- or 11-year-olds—maybe even a graphic novel.
And looking back, what would you say was the high point of serving as the Children’s Laureate?
I had the chance to argue my case about the vital importance of literature in children’s education. We are crazy if we think the easiest way to help children understand complex and abstract ideas is with worksheets and units. The world’s wisdom is the world’s literature. The people who wrote those books were engaging with ideas and feelings of the most complex, intimate, and difficult sort. And I include myself in that group. The school system should not be about test scores. Books are central to any decent education.
Tiny Little Fly by Michael Rosen, illus. by Kevin Waldron. Candlewick, $15.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-7636-4681-3