On the Move: Home Is Where You Find It

  • Review
By – January 12, 2023

British author Michael Rosen is well-known for his many children’s books, includ­ing the mod­ern clas­sic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. His lat­est, On the Move: Home Is Where You Find It, is a heart­felt and intel­lec­tu­al­ly hon­est appraisal of what it means to be the child of refugees from Holo­caust-strick­en Europe. Through­out this mem­oir-in-verse, Rosen reminds young read­ers who may not ini­tial­ly iden­ti­fy with the lives of immi­grants and refugees that their own secu­ri­ty may be frag­ile. Those flee­ing pover­ty or ter­ror are not essen­tial­ly dif­fer­ent; we all might sud­den­ly find ourselves/​in a wrong place at a wrong time/​carrying the wrong passport/​with a face that doesn’t fit.”

Rosen frames his sto­ry as a search. Like many chil­dren, he grew up dis­sat­is­fied with adult respons­es to his ques­tions. Hear­ing allu­sions to rel­a­tives who had been lost, he became deter­mined to metaphor­i­cal­ly res­cue them by research­ing their lives, restor­ing what the Nazis and their col­lab­o­ra­tors had erased. In the book’s intro­duc­tion, Rosen explains that poet­ry is the per­fect lit­er­ary vehi­cle for this task, as the form itself is a kind of migrant — trav­el­ing, wit­ness­ing, and sur­viv­ing. By explain­ing and then demon­strat­ing the truth of this con­nec­tion, Rosen sets his book apart as a tru­ly dis­tinc­tive exam­ple of the genre.

Orga­nized by theme, the col­lec­tion allows each poem to adopt a dif­fer­ent tone while still main­tain­ing its goal of search­ing for the truth. The poems are com­ple­ment­ed by Quentin Blake’s haunt­ing gray-and-black draw­ings of name­less fig­ures in motion, strug­gling to find new homes. Trav­el­ing through anony­mous land­scapes, they con­vey both suf­fer­ing and resilience.

Reflect­ing on past rela­tion­ships with fam­i­ly mem­bers is not an exer­cise in nos­tal­gia. On the con­trary: while his vignettes are imbued with love, Rosen does not ide­al­ize his par­ents and grand­par­ents or con­vert them into arche­types. And when he uses Yid­dish, less-com­mon phras­es par­tic­u­lar to spe­cif­ic events revive a lost cul­ture. The rhyth­mic and com­ic Two Lan­guages” cap­tures his mother’s admo­ni­tions about bad man­ners, pair­ing famil­iar bilin­gual words such as moan/​kvetch” and slurp/​chup.” But in A Word,” Rosen goes far­ther afield with the phrase shnob­bra-gants (goose-beak), which he bor­rows from his father. His father can­not recall the word’s actu­al mean­ing, only its asso­ci­a­tion with a long-ago fam­i­ly meal. Rosen then invents his own image of elder­ly rel­a­tives turned into geese,/at the edge of a forest…/flapping their wings.” In doing so, he pre­serves the per­spec­tive of a child mak­ing mean­ing out of gaps in information.

When par­ents try to pro­tect their chil­dren from trau­ma by selec­tive­ly nar­rat­ing the past, the result is often con­fu­sion. Rosen watch­es his moth­er as she reen­acts the Bat­tle of Stal­in­grad by mov­ing plates and bot­tles across a table; his father recalls a vis­it to Berlin after the war, when a bliz­zard left dinosaur skele­tons — which a bomb­ing at the Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Muse­um had dis­placed — strand­ed in the snow. Rosen seizes on these anec­dotes to both recon­struct events and also reveal details about spe­cif­ic peo­ple who suf­fered. With­out this active com­mit­ment, those indi­vid­u­als would be lost.

Rosen cap­tures the sense that chil­dren have of war’s sense­less­ness: When they do war, /​they for­get how to count./They for­get how to count,/and that’s how they do it.” His mem­oir returns mean­ing to silenced lives, and con­veys the impor­tance of wel­com­ing the stranger.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions