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Lecture, Birkbeck, University of London - November 11th 2009

Here’s a recent lunchtime lecture I gave at Birkbeck, University of London (November 11, 2009) on why and how Children’s Literature is for adults too.

Taxonomy of adult responses to children’s literature:

'No children's literature is an island, entire of itself: how and why adults read, re-read and remember children's books.'

I will look at the many different ways in which adults are part of the audience for children's books whether that's in the same continuum as children or in terms of people's memory. This arcs back to how and why this literature is written: as part of the conversation going on about childhood. The customary tendency to deny, conceal or diminish these connections is ideological and serves dominant ideas about children and their subservient role. The more we can acknowledge it and change our practice accordingly, the more we can challenge those dominant ideas.



Last week, I spent my lunchtimes on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show talking with him about children’s books. The context for this was a radio poll to find listeners’ favourite bedtime read-aloud story. So a list of some 30 books was chosen as a short-list. As a result of a first round of voting, this was whittled down to eight. Then, each day for a week, Vine and I looked at two books. The discussion involved hearing from someone who championed the book, there was a reading by Vine himself, and after I left the studio, listeners rang in to talk about the books being discussed. By the end of the week, some twenty thousand votes had been received.

How might we describe what was going on here? I’ve used the phrase ‘children’s books’. In another context, I might have said ‘children’s literature’. These are of course the usual ways in which we talk about a genre of literature represented by thousands of stories, poems and illustrated books that have been appearing over the last 350 years or so. They have become part of how many people in the west view childhood itself. In other words, it’s understood that there is an early stage in human life, where certain kinds of books are ‘suitable’ or ‘appropriate’ for that age or stage. In fact, the suitability and appropriateness of the books will be part of how the older human beings supervising children will try to ensure that the children will do suitable and appropriate things:  like avoiding going into houses where three bears might live; avoiding building houses out of straw or twigs which make them very susceptible to being blown down by wolves.

Another way of looking at this body of work, is to look at what it says about adults’ aspirations for children. So, not only do we hope that children will do suitable and appropriate things, and will avoid doing unsuitable and inappropriate things, but there are some assumptions we will make about what will be good for them in psycho-social ways. These are often expressed in terms of children’s books offering children perspectives on ideas and worlds wider than their own;  on giving children an opportunity to learn compassion through the process of empathy; on allowing children to face dangerous, bewildering or difficult experiences in a safe, vicarious, way; on giving children a chance to spectate  or even give voice to their own anxieties as their own psychodramas are acted out by proxies in the stories they’re reading; that ethical behaviour is shown to be the best way of going on; that books give children a chance to see that change can and does take place – neither they or the world is static; and, following from that, other kinds of existence are possible.

 It’s also possible to make some kind of case about the nature of writing itself.
Experience is non-linear and multi-sensory. In this room each individual amongst you is feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling many things simultaneously even as you respond to those experiences and indeed even as you determine what and how you perceive and interpret them with your consciousness.

Writing, from a purely physical point of view, is sequenced, word by word, line by line, page by page. Though it looks like that, we don’t really understand it in that way, because we can only follow what’s going on, if we gather up or harvest as we read and indeed anticipate images, sounds, words, ideas, motifs of what’s to come. The phrase: ‘I think it was the butler who did it’ conceals a great deal. It means that the person saying knows that this is the kind of story where we will find out who did it, that butlers are possible perpetrators, that it was within the rules of realism and the facts as given by the narrator possible for the butler to have done it, and so on.

What’s more the written language is like a dialect of its own, very distinct from spoken dialects. Apart from when it comes inside quotation marks, it appears in complete sentences with certain structures of verbs, regularly conjugated in them. It assumes that you can’t see the gestures or hear the tone of the voice of the narrator, so it has to tell you what things sound like. It is without hesitation or ellipsis. It’s system of back referencing, has to make clear who are what is being referred to: it, she, he, they and the rest are often not enough.

The point about this in relation to children is that that very young children do not know the written dialect (as I’m calling it), but if they learn to read a good deal, they will learn it and be able to reproduce it themselves. It’s possible to argue that this enables such children to take possession of certain kinds of abstract and complex ideas which are extremely difficult to get hold of through talk alone. This is almost an argument about democracy, or at least about entitlements in relation to the complex kinds of knowledge required to negotiate society.

Perhaps a more refined version of that, is to suggest that literature works at finding expression for difficult feelings and ideas and that the linguistic form they do this in, is in some way transferable to the reader. So that when the reader faces difficult feelings and ideas, the language of literature will be there to assist him or her.

Because children are viewed as immature people, then much of what I’m talking about here is a matter of initiation. We see ourselves as introducers, inviting children to take part in this worthwhile activity.

Another way of looking at this, is to say that children’s literature is a form of discourse defined by its discursive limits. It is what it is allowed to say and how it is allowed to say it. As yet, there isn’t a book for children that begins, ‘Fuck off you wankers, if I want to have sex with my brother, I can.’ And there isn’t a children’s book that has a passage in it like this: ‘Julian looked at George and said, ‘Don’t be silly George. It’s not that consciousness determines our state of being. It’s that our state of being determines our consciousness.’ In a rather dull way, I could specify which particular limits are broken with these examples, but I don’t think I need to.
You could all think of many others, I’m sure and at Christmas there is usually a good number of jokey books that play with these discursive limits. If Roger Hargreaves would allow it, I’m sure you could all write some wonderfully lewd versions of  the Mr Men books that would make the same point.

So one way or another we arrive at a body of literature with what seems to have some kind of satnav attached. It comes with a directional guide: this is good for a five year old. This is a good girls’ book. And so on. In so doing, we will not only be describing the book, but we will also be prescribing the child; that’s to say, we construct the child into what we want a five year old or a girl to be when we give them this or that kind of book. In less aware times, this was quite explicit. You only have to look at the pages of Boys’ and Girls’ magazines of the late nineteenth century to see how the stories were told as a way of offering model kinds of behaviour for particular ages, classes, nationality and sex of child. Fantasy books are often described as ‘pure escape’ but are quite often constructed around model forms of behaviour.

In my inaugural lecture here, I suggested that all this literature is in fact not ‘children’s literature’ but is shared literature. It is literature that children can understand and enjoy but crucially also involves adults,, and it involves them in two key areas: nurture and education. That’s to say, at the points of consumption and reception, adults as carers or adults in the process of education have a heavy if not determining presence. So, the classic way for a young child to consume and receive a picture book is for it to have been bought or borrowed for her by an adult, and for that to be read to that child on a parent’s or carer’s lap. The classic way for a slightly older child to come across a book is either through parents at home, or through teachers at school. There is no adult-free way of getting at children’s books before you’re free to walk out of your house and get to a library or bookshop on your own, or use a debit card online, by which time you’re probably what the book market calls a young adult or a teen anyway.

I also suggested that there is not only this material fact of a shared literature, but that one of the purposes the literature serves is that it is an intervention in those discourses about nurture and education. Both the process of what I’m calling shared reading and the very subject matter of the books take on what is being said about how children are brought up, cared for and educated. So, to take an example of a kind of book often thought to be about children on their own – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – you can see that Blyton’s work and Blyton herself are the subjects of massive amount of  talk between adults; and that the content of a Famous Five is full of stuff to do with how adults and children negotiate each other.

[see opening 2 pages of ‘Five on a Treasure Island’]

Meanwhile, the argument goes on between adults about whether Blyton wrote well or badly, whether it’s suitable today, whether it ever was, whether it’s full of ‘pure adventure’ or snobbery and racism, should the books be in school or not and so on.

I don’t want to elaborate this much more. Instead I want to make a slightly different case: that not only that I would like to reconfigure children’s books as cross-age, shared books, but that within that sharing there is a range of adult positions in relation to children’s literature. In fact, we could construct a taxonomy of adult response and use of children’s books, that further my claim that calling them children’s books is misleading. However, I don’t think this is some kind of oversight, or that it is innocent. I would like to make the case that by calling them children’s books and trying to sustain this, serves a purpose…but I’ll come to that later.

My first observation is that children’s books don’t go away. In ways, that are impossible to unravel, they last. So, if you were someone who read or heard children’s books when you were a child, part of being human and being a reader is to embed texts and their feelings and meanings into your being. In other words the language of a book, the significance of a book (more accurately, what we make significant) and the range of emotions we have in relation to a book all make their way into our consciousness and into our actions.

Let’s begin with an experiment and take those one by one. Text first.  I can remember Kipling’s ‘great grey greasy Limpopo River’. Turn to the person next to you and talk to them first about any word, phrase or sentence that you remember from a children’s book you read or heard as a child.

Now let’s do that for feelings. I can remember a sense of yearning when I read Cynthia Harnett’s ‘Wool Sack’ of wanting to live in that time in that place – fifteenth century Suffolk, I think. And great fear of the puppet-master who captures Pinocchio. Talk to that person again about any feeling you had about a character or a moment in a children’s book.

And now any sense that you derived a meaning or a significance from a children’s book.  Partly derived from ‘Hue and Cry’ and ‘Emil and the Detectives’ I derived some sense of masculine ganging togetherness and had a daydream fantasy that me and my friends would take over the school. Your turn!

I think that no matter what you’ve said just now, that there will also be texts, feelings and meanings that are part of your consciousness in ways that you can’t grasp or have even repressed. Something that we would find almost impossible to unravel is the way in which the very idea of story, its methods and its motifs are layed down in our childhoods.  We use the phrase ‘learn to read’ and this usually means something to do with sounding out letters or being able to recognise whole words or being able to reproduce the sound of a word according to adult norms. In fact, learning to read is also about discovering that opening a book and reading the words is about agreeing to play a certain kind of game, where you the reader will agree to abide by the conventions of the game such as not trying to physically reach into the book to save the life of a drowning man, letting a narrator hop into the minds one or more people in the book to tell you what they’re thinking; letting that narrator go to all sorts of extraordinary places in order to tell you what the characters are doing. Learning to read is also to learn that the events described in a story are not randomly assembled eruptions but that they are linked – characters do things and think things because they have motives and desires and fears ; that the beings in the book exist in the book’s time and place and not your own; that if you hang on long enough, something you wanted to know, will probably be revealed to you, that if someone is identified as, say, fairy godmother or teacher or (as in the Famous Five book) fisher-boy that these words come full of significances.

All this is learned stuff and the chances are if you are an adult readers it is because you’ve absorbed all these cognitive processes. There is no separation between  you the adult reader and you who were a child reader. 

Another key way in which children’s books are part of us is as a carer or educator. So, in the last few weeks, I’ve both read to my children and worked with teachers in trying to encourage them to read whole books – and not extracts – with their classes.  I’ve been reading my own children the Guardian’s ‘Fairy Tales’ supplements, Catherine Storr’s ‘Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf’,  and taking part in conferences that looked at Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Friend or Foe’, or announcing the winners of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. How about you?

Then, there’s a more hands-off kind of intervention which is to do with buying, borrowing and suggesting. I bought Geraldine McCaughrean’s Stories from History for my eight year old recently and she would like me to buy her some more Sally Gardner books. Why did I buy her the McCaughrean? I thought it made the past accessible and intriguing. It wasn’t a sequence of tales about Britain’s rulers, but covered a range of places and social circumstances. And we had noticed that she someone who likes non-fiction as much as fiction. How about you? Have you intervened by suggesting, buying, borrowing?

What about revisiting? Has anyone here revisited a book they read as a child? I don’t mean revisited by reading to children in your care, but revisiting it entirely by yourself?

What’s going on here? In a sense this seems to me, to be quite unremarkable. Most of us reflect on our past; we try to recapture moments from our past in a variety of ways: we look at photo albums, read old letters, we talk with contemporaries from our childhood, we revisit places we inhabited as children and so on. One part of our past is what we could call ‘our reading past’: the texts, feelings and meanings we had at specific times in our past.  I’ve found that if I re-read an old book I read as a child, I can remember in a very powerful way, the sensation I had at that moment. I can turn the pages of, say, a Babar book and remember how I felt when Zephyr ended up in the custard. I think part of the way we support our ego, support our sense of self, is to revisit our pasts and acknowledge it and, if we’re lucky, enjoy it.

Now something much more specific: study. Has anyone here studied a children’s book? Have you sat as an adult and exposed a children’s book to any kind of critical thought? If you did, what did you discover about the book? What did you discover about yourself?

I’ll give one example: ‘Rose Blanche’ is a book about the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a young German girl living in a small German town. She befriends a boy who is living behind the fence of a concentration camp and the book ends slightly mysteriously with the girl and the boy being gunned down (not seen in the illustration) and flowers growing in their place. The book has often been hailed as a remarkable introduction to children of the Holocaust. Why did I dislike it? I found myself looking again and again at the end, and first of all found something along the lines of the limits of discourse at work. The book is illustrated in a hyper-real way, almost as if we are looking at photographs, but the ending is almost a negation of that, primarily because it refuses to show death. But given the hyper-real approach, there is also a strange refusal of reality in relation to who did what to whom. And finally, the old motif of flowers replacing people seemed so freighted with notions of sacrifice and organised religion that I wasn’t sure it had anything to do with the events that preceded it. In fact, I suspected that the authors had accepted that limitation on children’s literature that children’s books should offer  hope or restitution but had done so in the least appropriate circumstance: in relation to the Holocaust. That’s to say, the Holocaust to my mind doesn’t represent any hope, any redemption, least of all through death and sacrifice. I wondered if  the book was offering a Christian appropriation of the Holocaust?

As you can see, I wasn’t really concerned here with second-guessing what children would make of this, or observing how they were reading it. I was just focusing on how I and the book interacted ideologically.

If you’ve done any kind of critical work on a children’s book, share it with the person next to you for a moment.

Related to this is the matter of reviewing. Some of us review children’s books. This is what I wrote about Carol Ann Duffy’s most recent book for children:

This is a highly peopled book. Among the multitude, we meet Peggy Guggenheim, Rabrindranath Tagore, Nippy Maclachlan, Johann Sebastian Baa (a very talented sheep), the Loch Ness Monster’s husband, Miss Fog, Brave Dave and Elvis – a mix of the real, the invented, the folkloric and the skittish. But we don’t only meet people: there’s a host of insects, birds, dogs, skeletons, foxes, rats, monsters, scarecrows and Elvis.

As a one-session read, this compendium of 4 collections plus some new poems, makes for a busy, let’s say frenetic, experience. Of course poetry collections are for reading anywhichway and I reckon this one is for many, many bites. This way we can find the quieter, dreamier places like ‘Don’t Be Scared’, a paean to the dark: ‘The dark is the wooden hole/behind the strings of happy guitars’, or the new nursery rhyme, ‘Pestle and Mortar’, where Mother and daughter go to sea in a mortar and pestle, ‘I’ll sit in the bowl/and you can row/over the water.// Then I’ll take a turn/and watch  you sleep/for three hours and a quarter’. This lullaby encapsulates the Janus in poetry for children – the double perspective of the adult and child. So C.A.D. (can I call her that?) is never afraid of talking about having been a child, about being a parent, about being a teacher and about a modern child now, all in the same breath, it seems.

To tell the truth, she gives the impression of not being afraid of talking about anything, whether that’s monsters, ghosts, quicksand or the taboos which in the past have been told to stand outside the door of children’s literature. C.A.D. welcomes in forbidden words, love and sex.

There are many signs here that she is also the teacher’s friend. For one thing, her work for children is like a poetic Newnes Encyclopedia, gobbling up and regurgitating phenomena phenomenally – she  casts schools as places where you will discover wonderful things. What’s more, ‘Your school knows your name -/ Shirin, Abdul, Aysha, Rayhan, Lauren, Jack - / and who you are./ Your school knows the most important thing to know - / you are a star,/ a star.’ And even with the staff, in one touch she can turn the factual into the mythic. She begins one poem with: ‘Mrs Leather’s told you about quicksand’ – there’s nothing more topographical and plain than that, but we are soon drawn into the horror of  ‘Its moist suck/drinks the hem of a new blue dress/to the waist - / Your hands will panic over your head,/ claw at space.’ By the end, with the whole town ‘searching, searching with blankets and lights’, it’s ‘too late; only your satchel’s found, at dawn, at the edge of the field/by this gate.’ Poetry like this gathers ghastliness from other places, from other people: the missing, the molested, the lost.

Talking of other people, the collection is full of shadows and spirits. The anonymous creators of nursery rhymes and folk tales speak through C.A.D; Christopher Smart, who 200  years ago rejoiced in the beauties of his cat in a biblical way, seems here to be talking about fruit and veg.; Wilfred Owen is half-rhyming all over the place; and, rooty tooty, there’s Little Richard both in person and quoted. And there’s Elvis. That’s alright, Mama. Well, the truth is, C.A.D. is an ‘Alright, Mama’.

And then there’s the Crossover text, as it’s come to be known. Out of interest, how many here have read a book to yourself, by yourself a book  that has been marketed for children: a Harry Potter, a Philip Pullman or indeed books that are much older Alice, George Macdonald, the Hobbit, Wind in the Willows.

And then, in this taxonomy I’m creating here is collecting. I collect children’s books, comics, chapbooks – all sorts. Why? The impulse to collect anything must be something to do with security. My mother collected corned beef. In tins. The world is chaotic and dangerous. If you collect something then at the very least you’ve made order out of that tiny bit of the world. But why books for children? I suspect that this has something to do with trying to retrieve the irretrievable. I can’t have my childhood back (assuming that it would be desirable to do so) so all I can do is assemble symbols of it, as represented by books.

So, there I’ve compiled a rough, preliminary taxonomy of adult use of children’s books. I’m sure it could be expanded and refined and in so doing we would discover more and more ways in which childhood and adulthood are not quite such markedly different states as we are often led to believe.

In fact, this is where I would like to end. I want to make the claim that when or if we deny the shared nature of children’s books, we sustain a division that is a crucial part of the status quo. Education and nurture are full of assumptions and practices to do with hierarchies and rankings. So, for example, children in schools are always ranked by age and often by so-called ability, often by behaviour norms. As young as five, six and seven, children are segregated into fast, medium and slow groups; into possessors of more or fewer smiley faces and good behaviour certificates. It’s only possible to do this through power structures that exclude children. In fact, very nearly all of these practices are presented to children as fait accomplis. They are normal. They are how life is. They aren’t up for negotiation. They aren’t even discussed. Other possible ways of being aren’t suggested. In other words they are deeply ideological.

I would like to suggest that one small part of the way in which we as adults sustain this kind of structure and power relations is through a denial of our own childhoods. And part of that denial is to deny that we are readers or beneficiaries of children’s books.




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