I was hugely excited first to be offered the new edition of Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake to review, then to be given the chance to ask him some questions. Michael Rosen has been a hero since I was small. He came to talk at my primary school, and made every child laugh within about three seconds by describing the assembly hall as having a ‘Weetabix Ceiling’. Rosen’s poetry is funny, and great for sharing and reading aloud. It is also full of moments which are easy to relate to. The boy in chocolate cake, for example, finds himself caught-out after breaking the rules.
I’m delighted to welcome Michael Rosen, on language, format and childhood memories. LN: I have been familiar with the poem since childhood, as it appeared in The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry. Have you adapted the text over time, or was it rewritten for the new edition?
MR: I adapted the text over time through my performances in schools. Then I put that performance on my YouTube channel. The book is the text of that performance.
LN: Did years of live performance influence the changes?
MR: Yes indeed. Every performance demands that I grab the attention of everyone in the room or wherever it is I’m performing.
LN: I am particularly interested in the addition of extra noises, which are highlighted in different fonts. Is playful language important to the poem?
MR: I think it is. It’s easy to forget that letters belong to us, they don’t belong to dictionaries or academics. We make all sorts of noises that mean a lot but are not strictly speaking ‘words’. If we want to, we can represent those noises with letters, with brand new spellings. I think it’s great for children to know that they can do that. They can make letters work for them.
LN: In the past, you have spoken about books being more important than formalised language learning. Why is it important for children to see playful approaches to language?
MR: Books work very hard to convince readers that they are worth reading. We do this with all sorts of ‘hooks’ to do with emotions, thoughts, feelings but we also do it with the sound of what we write. Language always has a physical aspect. With books, that aspect is print and paper. With speech, it’s sound waves created with our bodies. What’s very infectious (and funny) is when you write things down that appear to invite your body to play and experiment with those sounds. The poem is full of that, and I’ve found ways to have created an element of surprise in the sounds. This is also connected with a visceral pleasure (eating cake!) and high risk (what if I’m found out?). This combination seems to have tickled quite a few children and drawn them into wanting to hear it and read it over and over again.
LN: The illustrations are new to this edition. How much of a collaboration was there between yourself and Kevin Waldron? Did you have any ideas about how you wanted the poem to be experienced, and how the illustrations might differ from previous editions of the poem?
MR: My attitude to illustrators, publishing and editors is that my job is to write. Everyone else in the production of a book has their job to do. The illustrator ‘reads’ my text and re-represents it through the pictures. The editors and other publishing workers create the book. That’s not my job either! So I saw the roughs as Kevin worked but I had very little to say because he was doing his work, his way and we all trusted him. I like that way of working.
LN: I am interested in the different ways you have brought the poem to readers, for example in his school performances and on social media. Has YouTube changed the way in which you write new poems? Did it influence the new text?
MR: Thanks for asking this. My own view of my poems is that I have several ways of ‘delivering’ them to people, each as valid as another. You’ve identified three: books, live performances, social media. These aren’t separate from each other, though. They each nudge each other into adapting how they are written or performed. This book is a perfect example of this kind of hybrid. I think I realised this for the first time in the late 1970s when I was going into schools a good deal to perform my poems and found that the talk I was doing between the poems was more interesting to the children than my poems! Then I realised that I could write down these talking parts. Nowadays, I think my thoughts have become very compressed: as I write I’m miming performance in my head. Social media are quite hard to do from a performance point of view because the only people there are the film crew and the director. They’re not there to enjoy themselves, they’re working, so I’d be ill-advised to take notice of their reaction. I do ‘take direction’ though, especially as the director is my son!
LN: You have said before that you writes about childhood memories. Why and how do particular moments lend themselves to poetry? Are they universal experiences, or very personal memories?
MR: This is your hardest question. I’m not really sure how I find these memories or why I select them. I sense that they are ones that have at their core something absurd or ironic. In some way or another, the person in the story (usually me but not always) doesn’t know as much about what they are saying or doing as the audience. It’s the core of dramatic irony, discovered or polished thousands of years ago by the Ancient Greeks in drama and has been keeping us going through entertainment ever since. I’m not even sure why it interests me so much other than that I like the way dramatic irony respects the audience: it seems to say, ‘you take over’ or ‘you figure this out’.
Huge thanks to Michael Rosen for his fantastic answers. The picture book edition of Chocolate Cake is available now. It looks as scrumptious as it sounds!
Thanks to Sarah Hastelow and all at Penguin Random House Children’s for arranging this opportunity.