By Issy Flower
Judith Kerr’s life was one of those that just doesn’t happen anymore. From fleeing Nazi occupation to becoming a bestselling author, her resilience and talent gave rise to some of the most beloved children’s books ever written, alongside a sparkling wit and keen intelligence that kept her writing and publishing until the age of ninety-five.
Born into a literary household, the child of famous German theatre critic Alfred Kerr, Judith and her family fled the Nazis in 1933 and arrived in Britain. In Germany, her father’s books were burned; Judith later responded with a trilogy of novels including When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a book which proved partly responsible for teaching the British about the refugee crisis and is still relevant today for its moving depiction of a family displaced.
Whilst training as an artist, Kerr met her future husband, the famous screenwriter Nigel Kneale, in the BBC canteen; he encouraged her to use her keen sense of language and dialogue in script writing and, later, in books. A great thrill for me in researching this article was discovering that Kerr had worked on the special effects for Kneale’s seminal sci-fi serial The Quatermass Experiment – a testament both to her creativity and the close relationship she shared with her husband.
Later, Kerr began telling stories for her children, and from out of this something incredible emerged. The Tiger Who Came to Tea has been consistently popular since its publication in 1968; although some such as Michael Rosen have seen the invasion of the Tiger as parallel to that of the Nazis, Kerr resisted such ham-fisted literary interpretation, stating instead (and consistently) that ‘the tiger was just a tiger who wanted some tea’.
Later on came the equally mischievous Mog, who over a seventeen-book series got into frequent scrapes with her family, the Thomases. Kerr’s no-nonsense attitude was evident when the German translators of her books made Mog a male cat, as ‘feminism hadn’t really hit there yet’. In response, Kerr recounted that she ‘gave Mog kittens and let them sort it out’.
It’s difficult to encapsulate a life that spanned so many different avenues. Kerr was consistently creatively productive and invokes a warm response from anyone who read her books as a child. It was hard not to fall in love with a character like Mog – a naughty female equivalent to Paddington Bear; as hard as it is now not to feel upset, knowing her creator has passed on.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea has been consistently popular since its publication in 1968
In the final Mog book, Goodbye Mog, Kerr tackles the subject of death gently and with great style. She joked once that she had a dream where her children went to McDonald’s directly after her funeral, but I like to think that her rest will be much more along the lines of Mog’s:
‘Mog was tired. She was dead tired. Her head was dead tired. Her paws were dead tired. Even her tail was dead tired. Mog thought ‘I want to sleep forever’. And so she did. But a little part of her stayed awake to see what would happen next’.
I really, really hope that a little part of Judith Kerr has stayed awake to see how loved she was, and how much we’ll miss her.
Image by Lee Carson via Creative Commons