13/09/2012 08:38 BST | Updated 13/09/2012 14:52 BST

Q&A: Michael Rosen On Roald Dahl

Michael Rosen is a legend of both children's literature and poetry.

He's also a Roald Dahl fan, and has worked with illustrator Quentin Blake since releasing his first book, Mind Your Own Business in 1974.

His new book, out on Thursday, Fantastic Mr Dahl is a literary biography of the great writer written for children, something he admits himself is unusual.

We spoke to him about why Dahl is still so important today, why children's writers are not all good and how Dahl's incredible life influenced his stories.

michael rosen

Poet and Dahl fan Michael Rosen

What is it about Dahl that makes him so special?

There’s two incredibly big reasons why. One is that he had the most extraordinary and amazing life, but another is that his books are an amazing creative output. They’re a set of fabulous inventions. He was never content to write sequels and series.

In that hey day period when he was writing a book a year nobody could predict or have any idea what would come out next. Then when somebody said he’d written a book of poems, nobody would know what the book of poems would look like or sound like.

There was an element of the surprise and the fantastic, and when you look at his life there are aspects of it that are the same, of tragedy and heroism. He was inventive in how he carried on in his own life. Those are the two main reasons of being attracted to someone like that.

Tell us about Fantastic Mr. Dahl

It’s a kind of biography but it’s also how he wrote, why he wrote. If it was an adult book we’d call it a literary biography, but as it’s for children you’d think, well maybe it can’t be a literary biography, but actually it is.

His life wasn’t particularly child-friendly, was it?

No but we get into all sorts of misconceptions about people who write for children. People think that children’s writers are all cosy people, who are permanently nice to every child we ever meet and that somehow we’re a kind of disguised child ourselves.

It’s a stereotype that other people have invented about us, but we’re entitled to be as horrible as or as nice as anybody else, really.

fantastic mr dahl

Rosen's book is a Dahl biography for children

How was it putting his darker moments into a biography for children?

I’ve tried to describe some of them when I thought it was relevant. There’s the whole episode with (Dahl’s wife) Patricia Neal and his attitude to her strokes, but I didn’t dwell at great length on what obviously happened in their lives.

His attitude to how you deal with stroke victims isn’t particularly relevant to children. It’s not my theory, but basically, the ingredients that will turn you into a writer are probably all in place by the time you’re about 20. So I spent more time on his own childhood, which had its own privations even if it was comfortable.

Why is it important for children to know what his life was like, and to associate it with his stories?

It isn’t important at all. I’d never for one moment say that in order to enjoy or understand Roald Dahl’s writing, you must know about his life. Entirely not, but I would say that if you’re interested in his life, here it is. It’s just an offering. It’s following your nose along the line of interest, which is something we all do as readers, I think. Why not offer this to children?

What has it been like working with Quentin Blake?

It’s just wonderful. It’s just an incredible experience. It’s like you’re in the presence of somebody who can mime what you're thinking, but instead of looking at somebody miming, they’re doing it on the page. It’s like a re-enactment of your words.

More Roald Dahl Day fun:

What was the most surprising discovery of your research?

It’s only a hunch, but I think he was unusual in having such an emotional and intellectual relationship with his mother as a boy at boarding school. You can feel your way through his letters, it’s an intelligent and complex relationship. She wasn’t just his primary carer, she was his only carer at home - he had no dad. She held the whole family together.

It’s quite clear he had a jokey relationship with her; he teases her in the letters. But at the same time you can hear him protecting her from when he’s having a rough time. It’s nice to read it.

The relationships between children and adults are very prominent in his books

Yeah, in Danny The Champion Of The World he expresses a tender relationship between parent and child. And it’s very rare, to find a good relationship between a boy and his dad in children’s fiction. It’s quite interesting that Danny is a boy who loves his dad, who would do anything for him. He uses the word “sparky” towards him. Outside of fiction, Dahl would say that was the very best a carer could be, “sparky”. It’s quite interesting, he used it in the book and real life.

There’s a hidden tribute to his mother in The Witches with the Grandmother figure, most people recognise that I think.

Why do you think Dahl still resonates today, that he’s still read?

I think because he played around with something that is very deep in children’s minds, which is that we are constantly surrounded by the notion that you must love your parents and that your parents love you. Very many children also experience their parents being not particularly loving, and vice-versa - not having loving feelings towards their parents.

Dahl played around with these ideas. Think of Matilda, who had horrible parents, as an example - that resonates with many, many children. It doesn’t matter that it was written in the 80s, it still applies now. It addresses your state of affairs in a symbolic way, that’s what great stories do.

At the same time, he doesn’t leave you hanging there, because he has Miss Honey to catch you - who loves the child, and the child loves Miss Honey. So it works. You’re supported in your reading.

That’s incredibly powerful, and I suspect that resonates now and it will resonate for a long time, because adults who look after children don’t always love unconditionally. It’s all done in a crazy, silly way, but that’s why it resonates.

Fantastic Mr Dahl by Michael Rosen is published by Puffin on 13 Sept. To celebrate Roald Dahl Day, Michael Rosen will be taking part in a live interactive webcast on Mon 24 Sept in conversation with Quentin Blake. Register at