Guest post by Lindsey Heaven
I started my journey to the preview of Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake & Bad Things, a brand new exhibition at Discover Children’s Story Centre, feeling guilty that I couldn’t bring along my five-year-old. A massive fan of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, he’s the same age that I was when our primary school teacher first began to read us Michael Rosen’s ‘Eddie Poems’. For me this was the moment that I fell utterly in love with poetry, books and reading. Poems read from Quick Let’s Get Out of Here and also You Wait Till I’m Older Than You (collections first published in the early 80s when poetry was a celebrated part of the curriculum) are hilarious observations of Michael Rosen’s son, and are one step on in little people’s appreciation of the satisfying rhythms and magical adventure of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
The journey to Stratford is always a relief to parents of a buggy-aged child with lifts aplenty and limited gaps between the train and the platform on both the Overground and the Jubilee Line. With neighbouring Stratford Circus and nearby Olympic Park, these days Stratford has so much more than Discover for the family visitor. If you are limited for time, the big red cranes of the building site at Stratford station, Robert the 1940s steam train and Malcolm Robertson’s Railway Tree sculpture are enough to delight on the briefest of strolls from the station to the story centre.
This visit to Discover had a lot to live up to, having visited before as a family for the brilliant Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers. Discover’s whole raison d’être is for children to experience ‘story’ in whatever form it may take through art, literature or music and for it to be a completely unrestrained, immersive and entertaining experience. This philosophy runs through everything they do and was most apparent (and appreciated) when my youngest insisted on yelling ‘What man saaaaay, Mummy?’’Who big maaan?’ as the director of Discover and Michael Rosen addressed the assembled journalist and publishers.
So what’s there? Just about everything you can think of from Michael’s picture books and poetry collections. The attention to the most minutiae of detail is incredible and massively appealing to children who (no pun intended) feel like they’re discovering it for the first time all for themselves. The first thing you see when you enter the darkened floor is the giant chocolate cake with its secret larder where kids can role play serving up desserts. Around this, and winding throughout the exhibition space, is the ‘deep cold’ river from We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Everywhere you look is the ‘swishy swashy grass’ of the same book – incredibly simple but somehow very attractive to all the little people there, not least because of the tiny bear dens nestled amongst some of the tufts at ground level.
There’s the old fashioned school room from Michael Rosen’s childhood, taking inspiration from the hilarious and illustrated first readers book No Breathing in Class – fascinating for slightly older children and with an old fashioned blackboard, great for creative and chalk-happy toddlers too. Also for older children and parents is the recreated living room of Michael’s grandparents with photos and poems telling the story of his life and inspirations. But each room isn’t exclusive to a certain age group and my toddler loved the living room, in particular the TV that you stick your head into and pretend to be on screen!
Appealing to children’s darker and grubbier sides is the Dread Shed, inspired by both the story Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed and also his poetry collection The Big Book of Bad Things it’s full of grim things like creepy crawlies and (what I think was) fake bug poo on the floor. But by far our favourite part was the ‘big dark forest’ and ‘gloomy’ cave of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt which I thought was more atmospheric than The Gruffalo animation. The wood chips covering the floor of the forest are so deep you sink deliciously into them and Discover have cleverly tapped into that primal digging instinct that all little people seem to have (and that keeps them happy on the beach for hours), by providing mini shovels to dig holes amongst the roots of the dark overhanging trees. Venture even further into the forest, crouching down low and you’ll discover the cave where you might even come across a bear or three!
I cannot recommend this exhibition or the Discover Story Centre more. Outside of the featured exhibitions, the centre has a permanent indoor story trail secret cave, a musical dance floor, a creative table (by donation), a slide, and an outdoor story garden complete with a space craft and a pirate ship. Negatives are almost impossible to find. It was a little hectic with a toddler, which wasn’t helped by a full class of six-year-olds going round at the same time, but Discover usually sets aside separate times for school trips so that shouldn’t ever normally be a problem.
If you enjoyed The Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers, then dare I say it, like us, you might love this more due to the diversity of Rosen’s written work, along with the profile of his career and his life – from his Jewish roots to his opinions on education and politics, making this a much richer experience whatever your age.
It really was a big magical, immersive, success. But probably one of the most special things that came from our visit, was being inspired to read poems to both my boys last night which they were thrilled and delighted by. So it turns out, we all got to have our (chocolate) cake and eat it.
Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake and Bad Things is on until 10th April 2016.
Discover Children’s Story Centre, 383-387 High Street, Stratford, London, E15 4QZ (Mon-Fri 3-5pm – term time, 10am-5pm school holidays, Sat & Sun 11am-5pm, Admission for Adults and Children £5, Family Ticket £18, Under 2’s free).