After being admitted to hospital in 2020 with coronavirus, Michael Rosen has to learn to walk again. With the support of doctors and nurses – and his trusty NHS walking stick, which he names Sticky McStickstick – he manages to embark on the slow steps to recovery. Rosen’s recovery is well documented on Twitter and Sticky would appear frequently, hiding against a grey sofa, or reproaching Rosen for not being used. That characterisation forms the basis of this new picture book by the former Children’s Laureate.
Why was it important to you to share your Covid ordeal with children?
I think to start off with it was important for me to tell it to myself. I wanted to find out what had happened and one of the ways I find out about things is to write about them. Writing is one way to turn chaos and rambling thoughts into an understandable story. Once I started writing about the stick, I realised that it might appeal to children. Children’s books don’t always have to be about children or child substitutes (animals and the like). They can be adult so long as they have a sense of the world similar to that of children or similar to how they can understand and sympathise with things. I hope that children can get to see the kinds of things that people around them go through in their struggle to get better or to just get along with their condition, whatever that is.
Has writing it helped you process that period of time and how do you reflect on it now?
Most certainly. I like putting single words, a few words, a line down on a page. Then waiting. Then seeing what comes next. And then again and again until I write something that makes sense. I unfold thoughts, feelings and ideas out of my mind on to the page. Just doing this helps me feel good about myself. It’s very calming.
The book is dedicated to the NHS staff who helped you recover – and Sticky McStickstick represents them to you. What are your reflections on the state of the NHS, having been in the thick of it during a pandemic, and what do you make of the rise in National Insurance to fund it?
The people in the NHS, the people treating the patients, the people supporting those doing the treating, the staff keeping the buildings going are all amazing. They show us what a society can be like, a society that cares for people. The NI increase is a bad joke. The government funds its expenditure by issuing bonds which the Bank of England buys or it just issues currency. Government money is not the same as our money. They don’t do work, get paid, put money in a bank and use that money to buy stuff. They do really have a money tree. It’s how modern government money works. We are constantly being hoodwinked that the government has a handbag that has to be full. The NHS can be funded by the government funding it. Everything else is a cruel joke on poor people.
Do you think Labour offers a real solution to that, or any of our political problems?
To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know what Labour is at the moment.
Your writing for children is not politically overt. Is this a conscious decision you’ve made?
Well, it depends what you look at! I did two novels, You’re Thinking About Doughnuts and You’re Thinking About Tomatoes. You can’t be more explicit than that. Same goes for The Missing and On The Move, which are about how my father’s uncles were killed in the Holocaust and refugees and persecution. I think that’s all fairly political! There are also individual poems tucked away in the collections that some might regard as political, such as one called Car School in Michael Rosen’s Big Book of Bad Things. It’s about how schools have become brands. There are others.
You have tackled heavy topics in books such as The Sad Book and The Missing. Do you have any tips for parents on how to talk about big things like global pandemics, inequality and homelessness with their children?
One way is to watch the news with your children and wait for them to ask you questions. When you answer them, be as honest and open as you can. Never be afraid to say that you don’t understand or don’t know or that things seem to be very difficult. Ask them what they think. Don’t dive in telling them they’re wrong. If you disagree with them, hear them out and say that you disagree but that there can be people who disagree. Don’t try to hammer them into the ground or try to score points off them. There are books on these themes. The chances are that if you try to ram them down their throats they won’t read them! They may well come home from school and try out on you the ideas that you are most likely to be offended by. It’s partly because they are looking to you for ways of countering those arguments. You can gently find out who these ideas come from and you can discuss how to counter them rather than going off the deep end about them.
Both lead to huge and pointless loss but pandemics seem to disappear from our collective memories whereas wars are marked with memorials and remembrance days. What do you think is the difference and do we need to make an effort not to forget the current pandemic?
I am appalled at how this government and the mass media have massaged the pandemic into a manageable disaster. It is a tragedy of huge proportions. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost loved ones. As many if not more are suffering the consequences. It is a societal trauma and authorities and the mass media are not doing the job they need to do, which is to help us all cope with what has happened and is still happening. That means that the trauma is being carried individually, within relationships and families.
My worry is that this makes people turn on the wrong enemy or come up with ludicrous conspiracy theories to explain their trauma. This is a virus. The government didn’t take the right measures in 2020 to deal with it. The government should be admitting this, instead of talking offensive rubbish about what we can say with “hindsight”! There was the knowledge of how to deal with it. It was being said. We’ll find it very difficult to move on if we have a government laughing its way to the next election congratulating itself on the vaccination programme as if it was them who invented the jab or it was them out there delivering it.