Michael Rosen on Leila Berg: exclusive!

This piece was originally and generously offered by Michael to be used as a forward for the 2021 re-publication of Leila’s autobiography Flickerbook. Michael wrote it while in recovery from Covid-19. Although welcome, it was felt unsuitable for its original purpose by Leila’s agent and the book’s publisher as it doesn’t refer to Flickerbook specifically. We are very happy to be able to include it here with its references to the Nippers series and Reading and Loving, and for its appreciation of her writing’s influence on him.

Michael Rosen afterword (exclusively shown here): 

Flickerbook 2021 CB Editions cover

Flickerbook 2021 CB Editions cover

Leila Berg was a name that loomed up in my view in the 1960s as I listened to my parents talking about reading and teaching. I was in my late teens and into my early twenties by then and was well used to listening to my parents’ intense concerns with questions of how and what children read. Learning to read when I was doing it had been treated by my father as a kind of comedy routine with much guffawing at the sight of such easy-to-read characters as Old Lob, Rover the dog and Mrs Cuddy the cow. The cultural assumptions about why all 5,6 and 7 year old children would be interested in an idealised farm set in a mythical past clearly tickled my father’s sense of humour. I missed out on Janet and John tripping their stereotypical ways round suburbia but my first French ‘reader’ reproduced similar idealisations of a boy who always seemed to be ‘dans le jardin’ (in the garden).

Leila Berg’s ‘Nippers’ series burst into these norms like a whirlwind. Her argument was that hundreds of thousands of children were getting their first glimpse of the written word linked to settings that they had never experienced. Why shouldn’t ‘early readers’ (as the books, rather than the children are called) show children living on council houses, talking in informal ways, with parents doing working-class jobs? My mother, a primary school teacher, was caught between several stools.  On the one hand she shared with Leila Berg a very similar background: Jewish, working-class and left-wing, one time member of the Communist Party. On the other, she often felt grateful that what she had learned as the only girl to go from her primary school to ‘the grammar’, transformed her life. She always yearned for education to be mentally and socially improving. And yet she was highly suspicious of what she dubbed ‘vicar’s wife mentality’, the slightly patronising, downward-looking interventions of the middle class women who had appeared in her childhood school, diving into working-class areas to bestow little garlands of goodness on what they saw as backward little wretches. Leila Berg’s ‘Nippers’ landed on her desk and in our family conversations into this little soup of contradictions. I don’t think my mother ever resolved this in her mind and by then I was being a revolting student at university – 1967, 68, ,69 and Leila Berg faded from sight, though anyone’s old allegiances to the Communist Party were coming under heavy attack from the New Left.

Leila reappeared on my radar as I became involved in children’s literature myself from the 1970s onwards. This led me eventually into presenting a BBC radio programme, ‘Treasure Islands’ about children’s literature and from there I went on to study for an MA in Children’s Literature. Somewhere along this track, I came across ‘Reading and Loving’ and I can say in all sincerity that changed my view of what it means for the very youngest children to experience books. For the first time, I was introduced to the idea that reading is not simply or only a matter of the eyes and brain perceiving the written word but that the reading-moment was of paramount importance. Leila looked at the whole reading-situation of babies, toddlers and young children sitting on parents’ and grandparents’ laps, learning how to detach themselves to ‘find’ books in libraries, corners of rooms and so on. She showed that we can love our children in how we read with them, how they read with us. It was the first time that I had ever seen this articulated so clearly and passionately. Learning to read, learning to love books wasn’t – or shouldn’t be – a cold, clinical, detached part of growing up. It can be intimate and part of our loving relationships in family settings.

I’ve never forgotten this and try to share it as an idea whenever I’m talking about young children and reading. I mime the parent with toddler on the knee, hearing words and seeing the book. This is why picture books are a multi-sensory experience for such a child: audio-visual and cuddly!  Generally speaking, we still think that getting very young children to read books is a good idea. Leila helped show us how in families we can do that.