Biography Michael Rosen
- Time Period1946 -
Michael Rosen was born in Harrow, London, the son of Connie Isakofsky and her husband Harold Rosen. The family background is Jewish, "from the Jewish East End tradition" as Rosen puts it. Rosen's father Harold (19192008) was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in the United States to Communist parents and settled in the East End of London at the age of two, when his mother returned to the country of her birth. While a member of the Young Communist League he met Connie Isakofsky, his future wife and Michael Rosen's mother, in 1935. Harold was a secondary school teacher before becoming a professor of English at the Institute of Education, London, and Connie a primary school teacher before becoming a training college lecturer; she also broadcast for the BBC. Producing a programme featuring poetry, she persuaded her son to write for it, and used some of the material he submitted. Their ancestors came from Poland, Russia and Romania. Michael Rosen was brought up in Pinner, Middlesex, and went to various state schools in Pinner, Harrow, and then Watford Grammar School for Boys, and, having discovered the range of Jonathan Miller, thought: "Wouldn't it be wonderful to know all about science, and know all about art, and be funny and urbane and all that." Subsequently, in his own words:
... I went to Medical School, started on the first part of a medical training, jacked it in and went on to do a degree in English at Oxford University. I then worked for the BBC until they chucked me out and I have been a freelance writer, broadcaster, lecturer, performer ever since that's to say since 1972. Most of my books have been for children, but that's not how I started out. ...
Sometime around the age of twelve and thirteen I began to get a sense that I liked writing, liked trying out different kinds of writing, I tried writing satirical poems about people I knew.
After graduating from Wadham College, Oxford, in 1969, Rosen became a graduate trainee at the BBC. Among the work that he did while there in the 1970s was presenting a series on BBC Schools television called WALRUS (Write And Learn, Read, Understand, Speak). He was also scriptwriter on the children's reading series Sam on Boff's Island. But Rosen found working for the corporation frustrating: "Their view of 'educational' was narrow. The machine had decided this was the direction to take. Your own creativity was down the spout."
Despite previously having made no secret of his radical politics he was asked to go freelance in 1972, though in practice he was sacked despite several departments of the BBC wishing to employ him. In common with the China expert and journalist Isabel Hilton among several others at this time, Rosen had failed the vetting procedures which were then in operation. This long-standing practice was only revealed in 1985.
In 1974 Mind Your Own Business, his first book of poetry for children, was published. In due course, Rosen established himself with his collections of humorous verse for children, including Wouldn't You Like to Know, You Tell Me and Quick Let's Get Out of Here.
Educationalist Morag Styles has described Rosen as "one of the most significant figures in contemporary children's poetry". He was, says Styles, one of the first poets "to draw closely on his own childhood experiences ... and to 'tell it as it was' in the ordinary language children actually use".
Rosen played a key role in opening up children's access to poetry: both through his own writing and with important anthologies such as Culture Shock. He was one of the first poets to make visits to schools throughout the UK and further afield in Australia, Canada and Singapore. His tours continue to enthuse and engage school children about poetry in the present. In 1993, he gained an M.A. in Children's Literature from the University of Reading; he also holds a Ph.D. from the University of North London.
He is also well established as a broadcaster presenting a range of documentary features on British radio. He is the presenter of BBC Radio 4's regular magazine programme Word of Mouth which looks at the English language and the way it is used.
The English Association has given Michael Rosen's Sad Book an Exceptional Award for the Best Children's Illustrated Books of 2004, in the 411 age range. The book was written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Quentin Blake. It deals in part with bereavement, and followed the publication of Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss which was published in November 2002 after the death of his son Eddie, who features as a child in much of his earlier poetry. In 2004, Rosen published This Is Not My Nose: A Memoir of Illness and Recovery, an account of his ten years with undiagnosed hypothyroidism; a course of drugs in 1981 alleviated the condition.
Rosen has also been involved in campaigning around issues of education and for the Palestinian cause. He stood for election in June 2004 in London as a Respect Coalition candidate. He is also a supporter of the Republic campaign.
Rosen was the subject of the BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs programme on 6 August 2006.