Keren David

Many think children's books are unworthy of being called 'literature'. Judith Kerr showed they were wrong

JC features editor and YA author Keren David remembers her heroine, who has died at 95


LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 04: An annotated page from 'The Tiger who came to tea' by Judith Kerr is displayed at Sotheby's auction House on December 4, 2014 in London, England. A selection of annotated first edition books from the Worlds greatest living illustrators and authors including contributions from Michael Bond, Raymond Briggs, Quentin Blake, Lauren Child, Terry Gilliam, Judith Kerr, Paula Rego & Gerald Scarfe are to be auctioned to Raise Money for 'House of Illustration' on December 8, 2014. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

May 23, 2019 13:11

When you write for young people you occasionally come across people who dismiss children’s books as simplistic, unmemorable, not worthy of being considered literature.

The answer is easy. One only has to refer them to the complete works of Judith Kerr.

As a writer and illustrator she gave us Mog, possibly the most cat-like fictional cat ever created. Mog is independent and a bit daft, constantly in trouble and causing chaos, but somehow always manages to save the day, whether by discovering a burglar or leaping from a window onto the ‘flappy-flappy-thing’ (a marquee)  that has invaded her garden.

Even though it is a good decade since I read the Mog books to my children I can still remember words and pictures in details -  especially the burglar who, when the police arrive, is shown drinking tea just like everyone else. And I also remember that these books were fresh and fun on the umpteenth reading, for both parent and child (unlike, say, the wearying tales of Thomas the Tank Engine).

My husband’s favourite was The Tiger Who Came to Tea, in which the enormous, seemingly benevolent beast eats all the food and drinks all the drink (including Daddy’s beer) in Sophie’s house. Then Daddy (hero and saviour) comes home - rather stylish in his check suit, hat and red tie, dangling his car keys  – and  solves the food crisis by taking Sophie and Mummy to a cheery café. Kerr brilliantly manages to create ambivalence and just the right amount of jeopardy about what will happen if the tiger is still hungry after eating and drinking his fill (‘all the water in the taps’), and capturing the magic that a child finds in unexpected events ('All the street lights were lit and all the cars had their lights on').

She resisted those who wanted to interpret the Tiger as an allegory about Nazism or even Sixties sexual liberation, saying firmly that it was really just about a very hungry tiger who comes to tea. She didn’t need to write an allegory about Nazism really, because in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (and in two sequels)  she told her own story about being a child refugee from Weimar Berlin, making new homes in Switzerland and Paris before coming to London.

I was eight when it was published in 1971, and it was probably the first book about being a refugee that I ever read. Again, it was the detail - the food, the mother’s difficulties managing without a maid, making friends in a new school, that linger. But Kerr’s greatest gift was the ability to convey profoundly difficult concepts and experiences in a simple, concise, relatable way, something which is much more difficult than it looks. This is from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

“We’ll come back,” said Papa.

“I know,” said Anna…”But it won’t be the same  -  we won’t belong. Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?”

“I suppose not,” said Papa. “Not in the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”

In 2002, Kerr’s last Mog book was published. Typically she didn’t shy away from the most difficult subject of all. In Goodbye, Mog, she brings the life of her much-loved feline to a close. I read it to my children once, and we were all so upset that it never was read again, even though the story brought the sad family a new kitten and Mog a life among the stars.  

This is how Judith Kerr described Mog’s death.

“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 for ever.’ And so she did. But a little bit of her stayed awake to see what would happen next.”

If a little bit of Judith Kerr is still awake, today she’ll have seen the little refugee girl, scared she’d never belong anywhere, hailed as a giant of English literature. She’d have seen people brought together in praise of her pictures and words, remembering the Tiger, Mog, the pink rabbit and more. She’ll have seen praise and thanks for the wisdom she dispensed along with the fun.

As for me, Judith Kerr remains my heroine and my inspiration. And if I’m ever blessed with grandchildren I’ll be reading the Mog books to them one day.  

May 23, 2019 13:11

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