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Michael Rosen selects his favourite children’s books

This article is over 15 years, 8 months old
Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen writes about making reading books exciting for children – and gives his own recommendations
Issue 2108
 (Pic:» Tim Sanders )
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

Adults become attached to children’s books in three overlapping ways – as memories of when they were children, as moments when reading books with children in their care and as pleasurable reads in themselves.

So, when we come to recommend books or talk of our favourite books, this is not just a personal matter but also represents something of the times we live through. 

My childhood was peculiar in one main respect. I was born in 1946 and we lived in a very ordinary, Tory-voting suburb of London, but my parents had come into the area with the politics and culture of internationalism, socialism and liberation, talking of pre-war struggles in a far-off mythic place, London’s “East End”.

They were intensely interested in ideas and argument, so the reading of books of all kinds was seen as a central part of that. They were passionate about getting my brother and me doing the same. 

They believed that part of making the world a better place came through the kind of thought and debate that literature sparks off.

 Leaping forward to the 1970s, I started helping to bring up my own children not far from where my parents had grown up, while working in schools as a visiting writer.

I’ve been lucky to be able to do what any writer wants to do – find ways of writing that reach an audience that one respects and likes.

Here are my own five favourite children’s books:

Not Now, Bernard by David McKee is one of the picture books I’ve most enjoyed reading with my own children. It’s the very short story of a boy who is being ignored.

He wants to tell his parents that there is a monster in the garden and it’s going to eat him, but they take no notice. The monster does eat him and then comes indoors. The parents ignore the monster too. It invites all sorts of talk about the dynamic between adults and children.

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner is a book born out of the hopes of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. It tells the story of Emil, a provincial boy from a one-parent family who has to take some money to his aunt in the big city of Berlin.

We learn of his inner life (he feels guilty about having drawn a moustache on the statue of an aristocrat) before he loses the money in a train carriage.

The rest of the story relates how Emil meets up with boys – and one girl – on the streets in Berlin and catches the thief. The book is really a celebration of childhood in the city.

Jackie Kay is a poet, playwright and novelist whose origins are in the African diaspora. She was adopted and brought up by Communist parents in Glasgow.

Her latest book of poems for children is Red Cherry Red and it is a wonderful set of musical thoughts and images and arguments about her life and what she sees.

These are poems to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone and I would plead with people to get hold of her other books too.

A Lonely White Sail by Vladimir Katayev (sometimes called A White Sail Gleams and sometimes the author’s name is spelled Kataev) isn’t in print but if you go online you can pick up copies quite cheaply. Try or just google the author and title.

It’s a boys’ eye view of the 1905 revolution in Russia. It tells the story of two boys, one middle class and one working class, and how they handle the fact that they have helped harbour one of the revolutionary sailors from Battleship Potemkin.

It beautifully shows us how people from different layers in society responded to the events in Russia.

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah is the story of a boy from Ethiopia who finds himself in Britain and tells of how he got here, how he survives, and how the people around him respond when he’s due to be deported.

It’s told in a direct, person to person way that engages readers in the politics of what’s going on without it being called politics.

In a time when serious energy and money is put into implementing compulsory systems to teach children how to read, the vital issue of encouraging children to read books is left to NGOs and one-off campaigns.

As a result of the way that class and poverty impact on education, there are hundreds of thousands of children who will only come across books when they are in school.

Those children face education with one hand tied behind their backs. They are not immersed in a kind of language and a way of thinking that matches the way schools deal with ideas, debate, thought and knowledge.

This is why the struggle to make schools places where children can find reading books pleasurable, interesting and exciting is so important.

Michael Rosen will be appearing at the Cultures of Resistance gig at Marxism 2008 on Monday 7 July. Go to »

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