Yesterday I needed some serious retail therapy after a difficult week, so I headed to Berkelouws Books and went browsing through the store. My past life as a primary teacher always catches up with me in book stores and I was soon engrossed in the children’s book section. One of my favourite children’s poets is the British poet, Michael Rosen. I used to read his poems to my classes over and over because they loved them so much. They also loved seeing me act like an idiot when I sang the songs that are often included in the poetry. Like the poem where Eddie wants his dad to sing There was an old man named Michael Finnegan over and over… or when Eddie wants to have his birthday every day for a month and gets Happy Birthday Eddie sung to him over and over. My copy of Quick Let’s Get out of Here! is falling to bits after many years of extensive use. So I was excited to see a new picture book by Michael Rosen on the shelves:
So I stood in the book store, read the book… and was instantly reduced to tears! The book is all about Michael Rosen’s grief over the death of his son, Eddie! This is Eddie, the mischievous comic star of so many brilliantly funny poems! Eddie and the Hippopotumus, Eddie and the Wallpaper, Eddie’s Birthday, Eddie’s Nappy…. poems that had been delighting me and the kids in my classes for years! I stood in the corner crying and snivelling like it was ME that had lost a child, I was grief stricken… I had to leave the store without buying anything!I started hunting for a contact email for Michael Rosen because as silly as it sounds, I just wish I could write to him and let him know how much joy Eddie gave so many other kids… I am sure he knows that though and unsolicited emails would only be an intrusion. But *wow* what a powerful book, it certainly connected with me.So I searched the internet instead for information and came across this report in the UK Herald by Rosemary Goring. I am going to copy it here:
A startling children’s book landed on my desk the other day. Let me warn you now: this is not a story to read if you have sensitive sinuses, are wearing mascara, or dislike public displays of emotion, especially your own.
The title should have been a clue; Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, it says, above a gloomy yet spirited illustration by Quentin Blake. A tall, pensive man walks across the cover, watched by an inquisitive dog, and at their feet are an overturned garbage can and some litter: the debris of Michael Rosen’s shattered life.That image alone captures a mood of grief as vividly as a thousand words.There’s much more to follow. As sparsely written as a telegram, and as sympathetically drawn as if Rosen and Blake were soul mates, this is an exceptional, powerful book. It is about sadness, loss, death and grief, and it’s for children. Children young enough to enjoy picture books.
Michael Rosen is better known for humour than for misery, for poems that fizz and dance and laugh. A poet, children’s author and broadcaster, he has built a reputation based on being true to what he sees and feels. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (Walker Books, £10.99) is his description of the way he is feeling now, some years after the death of his 18-year-old son, Eddie, from meningitis.Writers have every right to exorcise their unhappiness, but Rosen has already written a collection of poetry dealing with Eddie’s death. Isn’t a book about bereavement, aimed at young children, going too far? Do we want to give them nightmares? Isn’t life difficult enough without adding new fears to the list?
Well, two things are immediately obvious: first, that good children’s books are for adults as well as young readers; and second, that after a very early age, only a few unusually fortunate children are unaware of the concept of sadness, which, even more than bereavement, is what Rosen’s book is all about. “Who is sad?” he writes. “Sad is anyone. It comes along and finds you.”Is that a terrifying thought to plant in a child’s head, or is it a solace to know that moments of gloom, of sometimes inexplicable woe, are universal? I find it strange that while radio and television pump stories and images of carnage and famine into our homes every day, it’s not until the family hamster runs his last lap on the wheel, or granddad’s heart packs in that we introduce children to the concept of death or to the idea that life is not and cannot be a perpetual Disneyland.
Although the impulse to shelter children from reality is understandable and sometimes necessary, it can also be unhealthy. Look around the shelves of literature for readers under 10 and you won’t find much that isn’t cheery, cheeky or cosy. It’s the over-abundance of comfort reading that makes Rosen’s and Blake’s book so radical. Where Maurice Sendak dared plumb the depths of a child’s complicated, scary psyche, they address the reality of the outside world and the inner spirit.
C S Lewis would have approved. In an essay he wrote On Three Ways of Writing for Children, recently republished in a new edition of The Chronicles of Narnia (HarperCollins, £25), he gave a robust argument in favour of not mollycoddling children but giving them the defences with which to embrace life.
Some adults, he said, think that we should keep children from learning that they are born “into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil”. Although Lewis as a boy was haunted by nightmares of giant insects, he makes a distinction between feeding phobias and giving children only escapist fiction. “I think it possible,” he wrote, “that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable.
“It was a clarion call to treat children with respect and foresight. His other manifesto was that one of the best ways to write children’s books is to do so “because a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that had occurred to him went best into that form.”This sentence should be emblazoned on Michael Rosen’s Sad Book because he could not have chosen a more effective way of sharing his thoughts on loss, and life. It is a gem of emotional and artistic harmony. Together, Rosen’s voice and Blake’s drawings will etch themselves on your heart, whatever its age. They’ll also do wonders for the sale of paper tissues.
I am so pleased with this reporter’s stance on treating children with respect and foresight!! I am looking forward to reading the book again in the privacy of my own home. But this time I will be prepared with tissues.
Updated: I used this text in a lecture, reading it to them using the visualising data projector. First I set them all up by telling them how much fun I had with my classes of children, then I caused a thyunderstruck silence as I read the text - as much as I could before weeping, that is. I used it as a brilliant means for the discussion of affect - different forms of emotion drawn upon as a resourced to create interpersonal meanings. There were also many examples of ‘tokens of affect’ - the alliterative and metaphorical language used to add even more emotional depth. Furthermore, we examined the images at a cursory and common sense level at this stage to see how meaning is constructed from the visual. This will give the students a tiny taste of what is to come next year when we work through the entire system of meaning making and the grammar of the image. (Kress and van Leeuwen and beyond!)