Literature as the driver of change: Michael Rosen opens IBBY International Congress in Trieste

17 October 2023

Michael Rosen is one of England’s most popular and well-known authors for children. He is a poet, writer, scriptwriter and television presenter. He is best known in Italy for “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”, but at least a dozen of his texts are currently available in Italian, translated by various publishing houses: Sinnos, Feltrinelli, Pulce. In the United Kingdom, more than 150 books have been published by him.

From 2007 to 2009, he was Children’s Laureate, a position that in his country is awarded every two years to illustrators or children’s authors who have distinguished themselves in the field of children’s literature and have contributed to supporting the rights of young people to have access to books and stories.

Rosen’s career and oeuvre have peculiar and interesting traits. Rosen openly declares his civil and social commitment, his militancy, his standing on the side of rights. His work – he currently runs a programme at the BBC on the English language and its use – is politically determined; he never fails to emphasise that he is the son of communist parents who saw education as a possibility for real social change. This social commitment is expressed in the promotion of the right to read that Rosen conducts directly by meeting with children in schools in the United Kingdom, in his role as a professor of children’s literature at various universities, in his television presence that allows him to reach a large audience, in the accessibility of his YouTube channel (Kid’s Poems and Stories with Michael Rosen) that makes stories and narratives available, in the political poetry aimed at adults in which again the revolutionary function of education is placed at the centre.

Underlying all of Rosen’s work is the conviction that literature, poetry, stories can contribute to significant social change and that the practice of aesthetic content can produce thought, creative thinking and change. It seems clear that literature, children’s literature, is for Rosen a tool for knowledge of the world and that this knowledge is conveyed not by direct messages, but by the formal nature of stories and poetry, by the intrinsic capacity of languages and narratives to provide rich, divergent and astounding visions that can bring saying and thinking out of stereotyped and trivialised perspectives. _His commitment to the dissemination of poetry for children testifies to his belief that having access to rich, divergent and creative language is a unique opportunity to develop thinking skills and understanding of the world.

Rosen’s work is aimed at young people, offering a style that is always humorous and a field in which word games, rhymes, metres and rhythms not only involve young readers, but force them to be active within the text. The unexpected always peeps out in Rosen’s pages and verses, the ability to use language, sounds, assonances, leaps of semantic field go beyond the possibilities of the signifier to become meaning. There is nothing given, nothing concluded once and for all, nothing already said many times in Rosen’s work; the world, even the world of children, appears in all its complexity and we can well close A Hunt for the Bear with a sigh of relief at having escaped danger, but that sigh remains in our throats when, after the word ends, a threshold image shows us the bear still wandering along the beach: an ambiguous image in which, on the one hand, we perceive the supposed danger and, on the other, the loneliness of someone walking alone, with his shoulders down and his gaze to the sand. This unresolved ambiguity that we find in many of Rosen’s works, in his verses, in his language games, in his stories, is a ball thrown back at the reader who necessarily finds himself questioning himself, evaluating the innumerable facets of the world, moving between multiple words and multiple points of view.

For all these reasons, for his ability to closely link militancy, civic engagement and art, without letting either side be depotentiated by the brilliance of the other, we have proposed to Michael Rosen to open with a master class the IBBY International Congress to be held in Trieste from 29 to 31 August 2024.

It seemed to us that there are clear links between his biography, his entire oeuvre and the theme that sustains and underpins the entire congress: the capacity of literature to become an engine of change at an individual level and at a social and political level. Rosen is undoubtedly one of the greatest authors of children’s literature and has the rare merit of knowing how to keep civic practices and art separate. His playful, at times irreverent, funny, intelligent work has within it the ability to imagine, dream, define, competent, creative, active, thinking and free readers. His doing around the promotion of the right to read becomes political action made up of practices, acts, projects. This clarity of intentions will make it possible to question in depth both children’s literature and the practices of promoting the right to read, bearing in mind that these are two contiguous but different fields, to investigate the role that different professional figures can play in processes and actions, to untangle individual experience and community experience, to put into the sun and give air and breath to many commonplaces that pollute children’s literature and the practices of promoting the right to read.

It seems to us that there could be no better way to open the Congress.

Nicoletta Gramantieri