Q: What is your full name (including your middle name)?
A: Michael Joel Rosen. But you can call me Michael J. Rosen, which is on all my books. I am not, however, Michael “No J.” Rosen, who is a poet and children’s book author who lives in England. I live in Ohio. And, as my father used to say, you can’t ride two horses with one butt. I mean, I can’t live in Ohio and in England! (Plus, I don’t even have one horse.)
Q: How many brothers and/or sisters do you have?
A: One brother and one sister. So we were a pretty typical family of five, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s and so forth.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Columbus, Ohio. Mostly, at a community center that had a swimming pool, bowling alley, and a day camp. It was where my friends all congregated after school, on weekends, and all summer. A lucky community.
Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: A pediatrician. Pretty much from the beginning, I was the kind of kid who found fake stethoscopes, pretend pills, and little plastic hammers for testing reflexes pretty fascinating. I don’t think toy companies make doctor’s kits for kids any longer, but they were part of my early career investigations. I also wanted to be a spy: either James West, from the TV show Wild, Wild West or Ilya Kuryakin from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And also a singer/songwriter/guitar player. Plus an artist and a zookeeper.
Q: What was your favorite thing to do when you were a kid? Why?
A: Pretend I was a grown up and do one of the things in the previous question. I was a busy kid, always doing something—two somethings. We did a lot of country drives. I went to camp all summer. We moved to what was a cow pasture—one of the first houses in the “neighborhood”—and I explored the fields to supply specimens for my nature center (our old glass-fronted dining room cabinet). I swam a lot. Pestered my younger brother a lot. Learned a lot of magic tricks to perform at birthday parties of younger kids. Made forts out of wood scraps we’d collect from scrap piles around the houses that were being built. The word “favorite” has never really applied to me, unless my favorite thing can be lots of things. I’ve always been interested in many things at once.
Q: What was your favorite book then? Why?
A: I know you’d like to hear that it was a Great Classic of Literature. But no. After teething on the early Dr. Seuss books, my love was a series of book that came in the mail. A nature library. It had empty squares throughout each book, and a sheet of stickers with various animals or plants that the reader—me!—got to paste into the book. Each month, a new book came, creating a collection of books about things collected in one place or another: the desert, the tundra, the rainforest. So everything belonged together. And so did the books. I loved the whole idea of the series, and how I could participate in the making of books. • I was also a big reader of Marvel comic books. Can we go back to the “what I wanted to be when I grew up” question? I really, really wanted to be the Silver Surfer—after he left Galactus and promised to live out his immortal life helping all of humankind. (Maybe being a pediatrician would have been like being the Silver Surfer but without the surf board and the devastating cosmic superpowers.) • I also loved books on magic, Hardy Boys mysteries, books about dolphins and dogs, and joke books. • Today, it’s hard to believe this, but there weren’t children’s bookstores where I was growing up. Not even many real bookstores for grown-ups. Just a book department in a department store, or the library. (Or my favorite thing: the bookmobile, that came around to our school parking lot each month.) I only wish I’d have grown up with the wide range and availability of books that kids have today.
Q: What was your worst subject in school?
A: In elementary school? Behavior, maybe. I had—still have, I think—a tendency to fidget. To talk when others are talking. To do one thing when I ought to be doing something else. I did pretty well throughout my school years in the academic subjects. Math might have been a bit more difficult for me, but I mustered the needed grades. In middle school and high school, I brought my gym clothes and took the required shower after each gym class, which meant I received good grades in gym class, but, otherwise, I didn’t care for square dancing, rope climbing, dodge ball, wrestling, and most anything else the coaches cooked up for that class. In college, advanced chemistry and physics (and I took a lot of those courses, being pre-med), were partly difficult, partly tedious. I just couldn’t rally any interest, so I didn’t excel in those areas. But if it doesn’t sound like bragging, learning has always interested me. And sometimes a keen interest can become talent.
Q: What is one of your most embarrassing moments?
A: The good thing about embarrassing moments is that you can forget them. That’s what forgetting is for, right? And the fact that I can’t remember them—and that’s pretty embarrassing, isn’t it?
Q: Why do you write books for kids?
A: Because, despite my age and experiences, I am the same kid I’ve always been. I’m just more articulate now. I’m better able to put the complicated things we feel into words. I also feel that my own adult experiences are sometimes easier to appreciate or understand if I imagine how someone younger might cast them in a story. To me, writing books is a way of witnessing a better world, a way of sharing what I hope is not a dream of a kinder, smarter, fairer community.
Q: Do you have any pets? What are they?
A: Animals have always been a part of my life. Some of them—the dogs and cats, in particular—we’d all call pets; some, like the leopard frogs and koi (giant goldfish) in my pond, the hummingbirds we feed (the same ones return every year), and so on, aren’t “pets,” exactly, but they share my home as well. They are part of the windows’ view, the walks I take, the responsibilities of owning a house in the country. • For now, I have just one cattle dog I rescued a few years ago, and two cats—all strays. Of course, there have been many others that were found, sheltered, nursed back to health, and adopted by a welcoming home.
Q: Which book written by someone else do you wish YOU had written?
A: The dictionary. Love those words! And to think I could have made them up all by myself. While I don’t sit most evenings reading the dictionary, I certainly linger over that great book whenever I look for a word. Just the weight of a huge dictionary is as satisfying as a buried treasure. It is one!
Q: What’s the first thing you do when you start a new book?
A: A new book does not begin like a race with the sounding of a loud noise and an announcer saying, “And they’re off!” Books, for me, are an accumulation of new and old thoughts, remembered and discovered images or experiences, characters and problems and trivia and worries that I churn around in my head for weeks. Sometimes I jot a few notes. Sometimes I create a new folder for documents on my computer and just start filing observations or articles clipped from a Website, or pieces from stories or books that I started and never completed. • Each book seems to need different things. Each book accumulates different things as I begin writing it. Some require more research. Some require more trial and error, experimenting with possible styles and voices. Some seem to demand 100% of my attention, all day and night—I can’t stop solving their problems or weighing alternative plot ideas. Others come together in a few hours of explosive attention—a rough draft anyway.
Q: What is the hardest thing about writing?
A: There are always different challenges or trouble spots, but, generally, it’s starting a story, a novel, or some other longer plot that makes me anxious. Makes me doubt myself or the worthiness of an idea. (Mostly, because ideas are all pretty common and it’s only how they develop, how a an author handles one that proves it interesting and original.) A book is like a spider creating a web. At first, just a few strands. A treacherous fixing of guy wires between different things—branches, leaves, the roof of a house, chair legs. That’s what creates the basic plot and the key characters. And every sentence and chapter that comes after that creates the web’s design. A pattern. A complicated net in which you hope to get caught up—in which you hope to catch the reader.
Q: What are you afraid of?
A: Edges. It’s not the same as being afraid of heights. Maybe it’s related to that, but I have a very distinct uneasiness around mountainous passages, low railings on balconies, roofs, ladders, long bridges where your car is near the fence, or most any place where you can be looking down to where you’d rather be. One of my friends says that all you have to do is put a piece of black construction paper on the floor and I’ll get dizzy.
Q: If you had three wishes, what would they be?
A: 1.) That the answers to this question could come true. If only life were as simple as wishes. On the other hand, I do think wishes are like a force of nature: what we strongly desire can change things. That’s at the heart of writing books, I think. 2.) No black construction paper on the floor, ever. 3.) No more questions after this one! (Hey, that one came true!)