Michael Rosen Wins PEN Pinter Prize

Michael Rosen, Poet in Residence at HistoryWorks in Cambridge, Wins the PEN Pinter Prize for 'fearless writing' in an award ceremony at the British Library. 

Helen Weinstein, Director of HistoryWorks, was given the privielege and honour of introducing Michael at the prize giving to the packed out audience at this iconic event. 

Here is the full speech called an 'econium' delivered by Helen at the British Library on 11th October 2023.


It is an honour and a pleasure to be invited to speak on this momentous occasion to congratulate Michael Rosen for winning this prestigious award, the PEN Pinter Prize 2023, awarded to Michael not only for his significant body of work of outstanding literary merit, but also for his writing that in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world.


I have personal experience of Michael’s tenacious and fearless writing and his invaluable gift for addressing the most serious matters of life in a spirit of humour and hope and humanity.


We met 30 years ago when we were both making radio programmes in the department “Documentaries & Features” located on the top floor of old BH, BBC’s Broadcasting House. Our first conversation, which I remember well, Michael zoomed in on the fact that I’m a historian and we found out we share a passion to understand big events in the past through the lens of how they were experienced by ordinary people.


In recent years, I’ve been working with Michael in schools and communities, tackling the difficult subject of the Holocaust, and discussing the impacts of war and displacement, racism and prejudice. Michael has the ability to address these most serious subjects, to tackle the enormity of the Holocaust and Genocides, the plight of Refugees and Migrants in a way that is approachable for young people.


Michael’s unflinching approach to the Holocaust has engaged youngsters in a difficult subject, drawing them into his research about his own family’s story of his disappeared Uncles who had been displaced and made to wear the yellow star, then deported from France and murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Over the past decade, Michael has inspired over twenty thousand children attending our workshops to write poems and songs, performing interpretive dramas and dances, reflecting on what they’ve learnt and discussed.  We’ve shared these performances at civic events, at concerts and fundraisers, indeed to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day itself.


Also, in our work in support of Refugee Week, talking about Refugees and the Migrant experience, Michael helps young people to express their empathy by imagining they are walking in the shoes of refugees, giving them courage by his example when he performs his powerful poems like ‘Everyone Comes from Somewhere’ Michael explicitly shares with young people how members of his family have been refugees, how he feels that he is part of a refugee family still, so that when he looks at a refugee he thinks “I’m part of their family and they are part of my family, not because I’m a refugee but in a way there is a family of people in the world who LOOKED FOR REFUGE, and other people WHO’VE GIVEN REFUGE, so I feel part of that”. This solidarity, said with blunt integrity, is not something young people often hear first-hand from their role models, which is why Michael is so deserving of this prize, for his unswerving gaze on humanity.


I’m very proud of the books and films that have come out of this work. These are the factual book called “THE MISSING” which Michael wrote about his journey to find out what happened to his family members who were murdered in the Holocaust AND the imagined correspondence between cousins in “PLEASE WRITE SOON” Also, Michael’s brilliant book of poetry, stunningly illustrated by Quentin Blake, “ON THE MOVE. POETRY ABOUT MIGRATION”.


Not only has Michael had three books published from our work, but we’ve also made a very successful film series to support schools which has seen tens of thousands of youngsters learn about the Holocaust and poetry writing from Michael online. Quite a feat! Michael’s impact on the next generation is really significant, because he is showing by example how to communicate with courage and hope.


Michael’s excellent and varied body of work has won numerous awards throughout his ongoing, illustrious career, and although Michael is fearless in writing and voicing what bothers him both personally and politically, he is described more often than not in the national newspapers these days, as a NATIONAL TREASURE!   Looking at Michael’s amazing body of work, I am more than happy to endorse that sentiment. MICHAEL, you are treasured, much loved, much needed and much appreciated. 


We almost lost you during the Covid pandemic but you survived!  And you lived to write about your experiences and to publicize how the doctors and nurses experienced ‘carnage’ on their wards, and were not themselves allowed to speak about the unpreparedness for the pandemic, but as a patient you were! You’ve published outstanding and moving books ‘Many Different Kinds of Love’ and “Getting Better” and the quirky volume of poems about brain scans and eye tests and toes and toe-nails called “The Advantages of Nearly Dying” and a book for the young about learning to walk again with “Sticky McStick Stick”.  It is indeed in these recent works about your covid experiences that Michael you show us again your ability to address the most serious matters of life and death, suffering and sadness, in a spirit of joy, humour and hope. Fearless in holding power to account.


Michael, your poetry and novels, story-books and journalism, radio programmes and films, have reached millions of adults, youngsters and children here in the UK and in so many parts of the world.  In broadcasts for radio and tv and on your film channel, in your writing and performances for children and adults, you share your huge sense of fun with WORDS, and it is the sheer joy of word play that comes across not only on the page but in your exploration and curiosity of words which you have generously shared with all of us in the long-running series for BBC Radio 4 WORD OF MOUTH exploring the English language and the ways we use it, for which 250 episodes are available online!  


Michael has been previously acknowledged as one of our most imaginative writers for the young, earlier awarded the role of Children’s Laureate and brilliantly Michael used this role to show his commitment to humour and his wanting to support fellow writers to provide hope and optimism and joy, setting up THE CHILDREN’S FUNNY PRIZE which gives awards to the funniest children’s books of the year.


Writing books for children is where Michael has proved to reach way beyond the UK to be one of our most significant contemporary poets INTERNATIONALLY, with for example ‘We’re Going On a Bear Hunt’ and ‘Chocolate Cake’ known by generations of youngsters not only through the printed word but now learnt from Michael’s poetry films where children mimic Michael’s intonations and actions, rhythm and rhymes, learnt from his exuberant performances.  Memes of Michael are even popular in China where he is celebrated as “Nice Grandpa”!! This way of writing and performing for adults and children which reflects our imaginative and everyday worlds, is, ultimately a very successful subversion and succinct intervention of the lifeless way children’s literacy is often taught in schools!


In conclusion, Michael has shown a huge commitment to entertaining and enlightening all of us, with his values of social justice, of walking in the shoes of others, showing  a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’, which, as you all know, is what the PEN Pinter Prize was founded to recognise. Thank you, Michael for giving us this amazing body of work with your stunning feats of wordplay and humour, which support and uplift all of us, giving us optimism and hope and joy!!!!

Michael Rosen Wins PEN Pinter Prize