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Author Michael Rosen, former children's laureate, headlines the Folkestone Book Festival 2014

Most parents have a well-loved copy of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by former children’s laureate Michael Rosen knocking around the house – the classic book was just one of his many Good Ideas, as What’s On discovered ahead of Folkestone Book Festival.

Author and poet Michael Rosen. Picture: Lawrence Cendrowicz
Author and poet Michael Rosen. Picture: Lawrence Cendrowicz

Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has picked up a thing or two over the years about what makes kids tick.

Now parents all over the county will be grateful, even relieved, to learn that his years of insight gained from working on the likes of BBC’s Play School and performing his poetry in schools across the land is shared in the new book, Good Ideas.

A father-of-five himself, with an additional two stepchildren, the 68-year-old poet and author will share his knowledge at Folkestone Book Festival this week. He told What’s On how his own parents, Connie and Harold, set him on the right path for lifelong learning.

Did you ever holiday in Folkestone in the past, Michael?

“No but as a child I used to stay in a youth hostel at Goudhurst, near Cranbrook, where a friend of my dad’s was the warden. It was lovely. His son and I used to get up to all sorts of tricks and naughtiness. I did a performance in Folkestone five or six years ago with Benjamin Zephaniah in a big pavilion and on the other times I’ve been to Folkestone, I would have been on the way to France!”

Were your parents particularly attentive to shaping your outlook?

“Yes, their influence was incredibly profound and important. They were both attentive to me and my brother and supervisory – they somehow wanted to know what we thought. My brother got the idea that he could be like that as well, so I ended up with three parents! He’s four years older than me. In a way, he’s still like that. I’m writing a book at the moment and we need a page on the origin of life and he is kind of an expert on that – he works at the Natural History Museum – and so there he is being parental, even this week!”

Michael Rosen gets animated in a children's poetry workshop
Michael Rosen gets animated in a children's poetry workshop

I understand that you started writing poetry because your mum was working on a broadcast for the BBC and used something you’d written in her final edit?

“I was about 18 or 19, mum was presenting programmes for BBC Schools Radio called things like Living Language. I remember her sorting through books looking for poems.

When you make these programmes, you always want one poem to lead to the next so there’s a link and I remember her saying something like, ‘I need to go from cutting your nails to going for a walk on the beach’ and me thinking ‘I could write a poem like that!’

“I remember dashing upstairs and then coming down saying, ‘There you are mum, what about that one?’ I did it several times and each time she said, ‘No, not really.’ On one occasion – it was a poem that ended up in one of my books many years later about a little boy getting fed up and deciding to stop growing his nails and hair – she used it.”

It sounds like your parents must have been good at instilling confidence in you.

“Right the way back from early memories, that instilling confidence was what my mother, in particular, was incredibly good at. She knew how to encourage us. The thing that I’ve said in this book, Good Ideas, is they were able to convey a curiosity. They passed on two things; one is that the world can be questioned and looked-at and it doesn’t end. Once you’ve been told ‘That’s a train’, for example, that isn’t where the conversation ends; you then say, ‘Why is it a train? Where is it coming from and where is it going? It’s never-ending questions.

“The other thing I got from them is what I call an entitlement. They conveyed the idea that the world out there was a place that was for you; there weren’t places that were either too posh or not posh enough, too high-brow or too low-brow. Anywhere was available to you, should you want it. It was incredible to pass that on to us.”

Which aspect of your work brings you the most joy?

“From a personal point of view it’s the performance of my poems and stories, I find that good fun. It’s so alive, that face-to-face encounter. It says to me that the stuff I sat on my own writing ended up working.”


“That came out of performance; I’m always on the lookout for poems and stories that I could adapt and use. I heard what I thought was an American summer camp song and thought, ‘Maybe I could add that to my show.’

It so happened that an editor from Walker Books saw me doing it and said, ‘That would make a good book.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you should write it down,’ and he said, ‘No, you write it down.’ What happened then was that [illustrator] Helen Oxenberry and the designers made it into this special and amazing book; I won’t take the credit for that.”

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

INTRODUCTION SONG - poem by Michael Rosen

Going to use my feet today

Don’t know who I’ll meet today

Going to keep the beat today

Going to use my feet today

Going to use my eyes today

Look out for the lies today

Try to be wise today

Going to use my eyes today

Going to use my ears today

Going to have no fears today

Never mind the tears today

Going to use my ears today

Going to use my mind today

Leave bad things behind today

See what I can find today

Going to use my mind today

Going to use what I’ve got today

How and where and what today

Going to use the lot today

Going to use what I’ve got today.

AT THE COREMichael’s four core ideas when it comes to educating children are investigation, invention, interpretation and co-operation:


“You can tell children things and sometimes they remember and sometimes they don’t but it’s also important they get a chance to investigate stuff for themselves so that they can follow up interests of their own. If you encourage those investigations, they will go further in a world that we might call knowledge or facts or wisdom, than if we stand in front of them telling them stuff.”


“We’ve got a misguided idea that you do the factual stuff first and then you can be creative. My view is that if you watch young children, they play with the world to find out what’s possible. I remember watching my stepdaughter bouncing a ball and laughing because she was inventing what she could do with a ball as a way of discovering knowledge – and we forget that when we invent things, we are discovering things about the way the world hangs together.”


“It’s too easy to think, when faced with history, geography or literature, that the key thing to do is remember it. That’s too simple and static – what we are as human beings is people who look at the world and try to understand it but there isn’t just one interpretation that can be dictated to you; you work it out, grow it as a growing thing all your life. Too often what tends to be emphasised is called retrieval – just a form of regurgitation and repeating things parrot-fashion because of the nature of the exams system – but interpretation is important for us to survive in the world because we’re constantly confronted by new and changing things and need to interpret.”


“We’re people living in family groups, with neighbours, in institutions like hospitals, schools, factories and offices and we have to find ways to co-operate. When it comes to learning, I see wonderful things happen when children find time to make, do or produce something together and you start discovering how you can be a learner by bouncing things off each other.”


Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy

The Folkestone Book Festival promises ‘incredible adventures, grammar, slang, maths, animal sex, bygone luxury trains, and rebuilding the world after a major catastrophe.’

Hosted by Folkestone Quarterhouse and running from Friday, November 14 until Sunday, November 23, it also features a reading by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and talks by leading military historian Richard Van Emden, Sky News economics editor Ed Conway and biologist Jules Howard.

Workshops include Find The Book Within You, a three-hour creative writing session with author Jane Bow, Sew Fabulous and Read Yourself Fitter.

A book quiz, a curry in the company of writers and an improvised comedy show based on Jane Austen’s work, called Austentatious, are also on offer to visitors to the festival.

Visit www.folkestonebookfest.com

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