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Judith Kerr 1923 - 2019

Posted on 23rd May 2019 by Mark Skinner

As we mark the sad death of the children’s author and illustrator, we celebrate the life and work of a writer who defined millions of childhoods with her iconic stories, such as the classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the eternally lovable Mog the Forgetful Cat

Ten days before the beloved children’s author and illustrator Judith Kerr passed away she was honoured as Illustrator of the Year at the British Book Awards. Next month will see the release of her final book, The Curse of the School Rabbit, which she wrote and illustrated at the age of 95. Whilst in her 10th decade Kerr also produced the picture books Mog’s Christmas, Katinka’s Tail and Mummy Time, not to mention the young fiction novel Mister Cleghorn’s Seal. For an author whose worst fear was ‘not being able to work,’ it was clear that age would dim neither her extraordinary talent nor her astonishing work ethic.

Kerr was a unique voice in British children’s writing, equally at home crafting timeless, exquisitely illustrated picture books as she was penning evocative fictionalised memoirs of her wartime youth. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, released in 1968, has as good a claim as any to being the great British picture book, arguably responsible for breaking the dominance that American author/illustrators had hitherto enjoyed. A perennial bestseller which has been translated into multiple languages, its phenomenal success is even more remarkable when you consider that it was Kerr’s first published book. Millions of households would delight in the surreal tale of Sophie and her stoic family, unexpectedly faced with a ravenous – yet endearingly non-threatening – stripy visitor. A large part of the story’s appeal lies in its ambiguity and the things it leaves unsaid; so much so that critics and fellow authors alike are fond of reading autobiographical significance into its delicately drawn pages. 

Kerr has always asserted that the tiger was just a tiger, dreamed up one boring afternoon when she and her daughter Tacy were desperate for a mysterious visitor to dispel the tedium. But one popular theory has it that the eponymous big cat represents the ominous knock on the door and wholesale disruption that accompanied the Nazi persecution of Germany’s Jews. Certainly, the fascist threat was all too real for the younger Kerr and her father Alfred, who, as a prominent member of Berlin’s Jewish intelligentsia and outspoken critic of Hitler’s regime, was repeatedly targeted. Kerr reflected on this traumatic situation in the first of her three autobiographical children’s novels When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As its title suggests, the account of Anna’s flight across Europe – which Kerr herself endured – seamlessly combines the unpalatable with the tender, the brutal with the irreverent and exciting. Published in 1971 it was followed four years later by Bombs on Aunt Dainty, which sensitively details the heartache experienced by Kerr’s alter-ego as a German refugee caught in the maelstrom of the London Blitz, and finally by 1987’s A Small Person Far Away, in which Anna returns to the country of her birth to tend to her sick mama. Collected as The Out of the Hitler Time trilogy, the books form an indispensable children’s introduction to the horrors and quiet heroism of war.

Firmly settled in post-war London, Kerr studied illustration at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, then plied her trade as a jobbing artist until she met her future husband Nigel Kneale, the screenwriter who brought Quatermass into the living rooms of a terrified nation, in the BBC canteen. Kerr had been a mother to two children for a decade before the success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea catapulted her into the front rank of a burgeoning British picture book movement that included John Burningham, Raymond Briggs and Brian Wildsmith

Any fears that Kerr would not be able to repeat the popularity of Tiger were allayed by the creation of Mog in 1970. A forgetful feline of the more domestic variety, the lovable Mog exasperated the long-suffering Thomas family for 32 years and 16 farce-filled volumes (not including the one-off reappearance in 2015 to tie-in with a Christmas Sainsbury’s campaign). The Mog books were very personal to Judith Kerr; Mr. Thomas, the irascible patriarch, was modelled on her husband (whose real first name was Tom) and the names of the family’s children, Debbie and Nicky, were the middle names of her real children, Tacy and Matthew. Kerr’s controversial decision to kill Mog off in 2002 once again demonstrated the refusal to hide from potentially upsetting themes that had also characterised her wartime trilogy.  

Numerous standalone picture books followed in the post-Mog 21st century, from the lyrical, dreamlike counting book One Night in the Zoo to the anarchic salute to crime fighting pensioners in The Great Granny Gang. The recipient of a richly deserved OBE in 2012, Kerr was as prolific as she was modest, as creative as she was diffident. With her death we lose one of those rare authors who can shape entire childhoods with a deceptively simple storyline or a universally cherished character.  

‘I just wanted to say: Remember. Remember me. But do get on with your lives.’

- Judith Kerr on the message behind Goodbye Mog  

Comments

Claire Perkins

Lovely obituary for a lovely lady. View more

Claire Perkins
29th May 2019
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