Manchester Literature Festival teams up with the Children’s Bookshow, now in its eighth year, at the prestigious Royal Exchange Theatre for this morning’s lively event: a perfect location for what is to be an animated morning.
In the lavish entrance of the theatre, clusters of neon-jacketed children arrive. They form skewed lines that are hastily straightened by tense teachers. As the entrance fills up, those that are waiting are guided into the Education theatre.
“Where’s Michael Rosen?” Small voices ask, whilst they are diligently counted and then re-counted. A sense of excitement and anticipation is building.
In the circular tiered theatre, the small bodies are quickly seated. A lone microphone stands in front of a Manchester Literature Festival poster waiting for its speaker. A wooden chair and table stand to one side. The small chair will later feature in Michael Rosen’s childhood memories; at times a seat in a disciplined classroom and at others his Father’s favourite reading chair.
As the lights dim, we shush one another. The festival director steps into the spotlight and introduces Michael Rosen, “one of the UK’s best poets and former Children’s Laureate.”
An excited shuffling ensues.
Michael Rosen bounces into the centre of the room, “Let’s see who’s here.”
He circles the room and in surprise shouts, “Ah people!”
At one point he stops and points out Webster primary and St Ambrose who he had visited earlier in the week. The children wave back excitedly.
“You’re very green”, he points at a teacher.
“Are you a teacher?” He asks another audience member. “I am!” shouts a 7 year old.
“Bossy Pants”, Michael replies.
A ripple of laughter immediately follows. This sets the tone for the next hour as Michael launches into humorous anecdotes about his school days, keeping his little yet vast audience very entertained.
Michael tells us, quite simply, that he writes books; and begins to share the difficulties of coming up with the titles for his earlier books.
We are told that Mind Your Own Business, his first collection of children’s poetry, was given this title on the sole premise of winding up librarians. The children instantly take to this and laugh out loud. Naturally, he thought it would be even funnier to call the next one; Wouldn’t You Like to Know? and better still, his third book, You Tell Me.
He now moves onto the more serious subject of how he got into writing.
He tells us that he would never have written anything if he had not survived at school. Now warmed up, his lively audience follow him on his journey, enraptured.
Michael reveals that when he was at school, ‘during the stone-age’, children were not allowed to breath. Small eyes widen.
We practise holding our breaths for as long as we can, in unison. Lots of little faces turn red in their efforts.
Michael Rosen replicates the thuds of falling students, unable to live on, making it all the more urgent to know his secret for survival. Thankfully, cunning Michael Rosen had found a way around this. (They always called him Michael Rosen at school: never just Michael.)
The best way to survive at school when you were not allowed to breathe would be to use your desk lid, (“when desks had lids back in the stone age”) to discreetly breathe out into your desks and then take another gulp of air. That air should take you through the spelling test, until your next lesson, when desks could be opened again.
Magically, all tiers are silent as we breathe in, open our desk lids, breathe out together and once again, take in as much air as possible. The occasional burst of popping cheeks, followed by snorting laughter echoes in the darkness and Michael continues to ‘thud’ as more and more children fail to survive.
We now needed to master how to return the desk lid without making a sound.
“Place your fingers on the edges and slowly ease them out”, Michael says. We are in deep concentration as we try this; I find myself wincing when I hear an imaginary bang.
We are now introduced to his brother, Dr Brian Rosen, who we are told, identifies fossils. Michael shows us how this is done. He calls out, “Abdul, Dave, Melanie…”, until he gets the correct name for the rock; in this case it’s an ‘Amanite’. Immediately the audience chant; “Abdul, Dave, Melanie…”
Michael continues by amusingly sharing the day he learnt that his Mum and Dad are actually different and the day he threw his mum’s best ring out of the window; all of which are inspirations for works in his new book, The Big Book of Bad Things.
The Children’s Bookshow with Michael Rosen is a literature event, without any reading. Michael’s memories strangely fuse with our own. The stories come alive using sound and movement: all whilst sitting in our tiered seats. Its comedy built on our own lively imaginations, whatever our age, whatever our experiences. One man and his chair, keeps us happily entertained, and patiently queuing to buy more of his books.
by Shaaheda Patel