I HAVE been a fan and admirer of Judith Kerr’s books since I trained at Norland in 1976.
We all used to read The Tiger Who Came to Tea to the children in the nursery time and time again — it is an endearing and much-loved story.
All these years later I am the manager of a small Oxfordshire pre-school and my “go to” storybook at circle time is The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In fact, I know it off by heart now and don’t even need to read the words.
I also read it time and time again to my own twin daughters, so when I saw that Judith Kerr at the grand old age of 93 was coming to the Henley Literary Festival for the first time I immediately bought some tickets. I was not disappointed — she was truly amazing.
The tickets said suitable for ages six to 100, and I fear some of the three-year-olds in the audience may have been marginally disappointed that it wasn’t a show as such.
But the adults were spellbound and intrigued by her life story.
Judith was in conversation with the very talented Nicolette Jones from the Sunday Times, who guided and encouraged the talk along in a compassionate and professional way. She was the right lady for the job.
First of all, Nicolette asked Judith about her childhood and her dramatic escape from Nazi Germany.
Judith’s father was also a writer and very unpopular with certain people in Berlin in 1933.
Luckily, a friend tipped her father off in time to escape the country before Hitler came to power.
Judith was just nine years old then and made a rapid exit with her mother via a milk train across the border, only a day before Hitler was elected.
The following morning, the Nazis arrived at their empty home in Berlin looking for them. They escaped into Switzerland with only two days to spare, and thank goodness they did.
This was a very emotive and moving true story and the audience felt privileged to hear history come to life.
Judith spoke clearly and eloquently about her life, she was articulate, amusing and showed a quick wit.
Judith wrote The Tiger Who Came to Tea in 1968 and it hasn’t been out of print since. It is still her most popular book, but the one closest to her heart is My Henry as that is loosely based on her beloved late husband Tom.
(Judith has written about 32 books and is still writing.)
The tiger story came about when she made up stories for her children; her daughter loved the tiger story and kept saying “Talk the tiger” so she did — she kept telling it and then wrote it down.
She went to the zoo to gain an insight into illustrating a tiger, but today she proudly uses Google Images.
She has been asked many times if the tiger represented the Nazis coming into her house, but she said it didn’t. In fact, she is fond of tigers and shows the tiger in a loveable light.
Each person who attended her talk was given a hardback copy of Mister Cleghorn’s Seal that was published last year.
Although she enjoys writing, Judith’s true love is illustration and she does her own illustrations for her books.
We were given a printed book plate to go in our free books as, understandably at her age, book signing is a bridge too far!
Judith is also well known for her Mog books. They are based on her cats. She has had nine ‘Mogs’ in her lifetime. Some have been true characters, with one even liking green beans. She talked with fondness about them.
Mister Cleghorn’s Seal is inspired by an event that happened to Judith’s father in 1910, when he was staying with a fisherman and his family in Normandy.
The fisherman used to shoot seals as they damaged his livelihood and was going to shoot the seal pup left alive, but Judith’s father piped up and said “I’ll have it.” He took the seal pup back to Berlin by train and taxi but struggled to feed it. So he took it to a restaurant to get some milk.
His plan was to offer the seal pup to Berlin Zoo, but sadly they were unable to accept it, so he took it home and put it in his bath. He tried hard to keep it alive, but it hadn’t been weaned from its mother so it had to be put down.
As this was Edwardian times, he had the seal stuffed. Judith can remember the stuffed seal pup being in her father’s study when she was a child. Luckily, Mister Cleghorn’s Seal has a happier ending.
She went on to tell us about the bureaucracy she faced when she tried to apply for art school but was turned down because she wasn’t British-born.
She did eventually get a scholarship, and went to art school for three years, but on a different course.
She therefore failed her book illustrators’ exam, which made everyone laugh.
Her other most well-known book is called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which is obviously about her childhood and has since been used in Germany to help parents explain the Nazi period to their young children.
Judith was happy to answer any questions that the audience asked of her. She liked the ones from the children. We all came away feeling humbled and privileged to have listened to such an inspiring woman.