Michael Rosen: It’s important that we hear the voices of refugees
Michael Rosen has said it is important “we hear the voices of refugees” after he was honoured with a major children’s poetry prize for his collection about migration.
The acclaimed writer won the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Poetry Award (CLiPPA) for On The Move on Monday.
The poems reflect on his childhood as part of a Polish-Jewish family growing up in London, and also explore the modern global experiences of migration.
Discussing why he wanted to convey these topics to young readers, Rosen told the PA news agency: “Children are in the world, they’re watching telly every night, they hear people saying there are people on dinghies or that Germany took in X number of people, they hear the whole Brexit argument, people saying that we can’t control immigration.
“That’s just one channel, they’re hearing that from the mass media.
“Well, I think it’s important that we hear the voices of refugees, we hear the voices of people who’ve got refugees in their family, and I just happen to be one of them, and, as it happens, I write children’s books.”
Rosen said the collection had been 40 years in the making, with early drafts of some of the poems dating back to 1980.
Despite writing countless other works, he deems it his first themed collection.
My two books 'The Missing'+'On the Move' explore prejudice, persecution, collaboration and genocide during WW2+how that carried through several generations in a Jewish family (mine) with (I hope) resonance for all families fleeing war, persecution, genocide. pic.twitter.com/P8Wb1wOub1— Michael Rosen 💙💙🎓🎓 (@MichaelRosenYes) September 19, 2021
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Speaking about the purpose behind the labour of love, Rosen told PA: “It was very personal just trying to put down on paper what I discovered over the last 20-25 years that had happened in my own family, and the slow unfolding and realising it.
“The great thing about poems is that they capture slow unfolding very well, because you can write a bit at the 10-year point and another at the five-year point, and then they come together in a book, and it’s like a sequence of discoveries.
“So, realising that when people are talking about refugees as the other, I’m realising that the refugees were my family, that if my mum or dad had been in France or Poland, well, either I wouldn’t exist or they would have been in flight themselves or worse.
“So it’s that kind of merging of present experience and present ways of talking about refugees with what had happened in my family life.”
The writer said he hopes the collection will inspire greater empathy among the younger generation.
“It’s a way of dealing with cultural differences in a non-aggressive, non-patronising, non-superior, non-othering way,” he said. “So it’s hopefully opening a door so that children can explore.”
The collection was published in 2020 and was illustrated by esteemed artist Sir Quentin Blake, who has collaborated on many of Rosen’s projects since 1974.
The 75-year-old became severely ill with Covid around the time the collection was published and was put into an induced coma during his treatment.
He confirmed that some parts of him have recovered, including his legs and lungs, meaning he can now walk and breathe properly, and he learned how to use his voice again after a tracheotomy. However, he said his left eye and ear do not work well and believes the damage may be permanent.
Rosen said he does not suffer from depression but experiences “depressing moments”, which he describes as being stuck in a “lonely corridor that goes straight back to the hospital”.
However, he said receiving the CLiPPA accolade was a “moment of sheer joy”, adding: “To see people being so kind and so appreciative is a kind of opposite to that lonely corridor.”
He said all writers hope readers will enjoy their work and it will spark conversations.
“Beyond that, your peers deciding that this is very good, then that’s an incredible affirmation, isn’t it? I can’t think of anything better”, he added.