At 92 years of age and with over nine million books sold, British children’s writer and illustrator Judith Kerr could be enjoying a restful retirement, but no.
The author of bestselling picture book “The Tiger Who Came To Tea” and of “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” an account of her childhood as a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany, Kerr has just published a new book and is keen to find her next project.
“I’m miserable now because I haven’t thought of the next one yet,” she joked at her home in Barnes, a leafy corner of south west London, where she has lived and worked since 1962.
Elegant in a long grey dress and pearl necklace, and fit from her frequent walks by the Thames, Kerr effortlessly climbed two steep flights of stairs to her studio, a small room with a drawing board and table cluttered with pencils and sketchbooks.
Faded family photos vie for shelf space there with books and trinkets including cuddly toy versions of Mog the cat, one of Kerr’s most popular creations who features in many of her books.
Her new work, “Mister Cleghorn’s Seal,” is a novella illustrated with black-and-white pencil drawings, a departure for Kerr. “‘Mister Cleghorn’ I really am pleased with, because it’s something I’ve never done before,” she said.
The tale of a man whose snap decision to save a motherless seal pup turns his life upside down, it was inspired by a true episode from the youth of her father, Alfred Kerr, a famous writer and drama critic in Germany before World War Two.
“Only my father would have thought he could do this mad thing,” said Kerr, chuckling at the thought of him struggling to keep a seal on his Berlin balcony. The story did not end well for the real seal, although the novella has a happy conclusion.
Alfred later had his adopted seal stuffed, and as a little girl Judith used to sit on it and stroke its fur in the family home in Berlin. But after they fled Germany in 1933, when Judith was nine, the Nazis seized it along with all their possessions.
They also publicly burnt Alfred Kerr’s books and put a price on his head. In exile in Switzerland, he joked that he felt insulted because the amount was too low.
Those events, and the family’s subsequent struggle to get by as impoverished refugees in Paris and then wartime London formed the subject of Judith Kerr’s autobiographical trilogy that started with “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” published in 1971.
The book has been translated into many languages and taught to schoolchildren as an introduction to a dark chapter of history. It won the prestigious Youth Book Prize in Germany, and in 1993 a school was named after Kerr in her native Berlin.
Kerr said that as she had got older she had thought more often about the Jewish children from her generation who perished in the Holocaust, and of the lives they might have lived.
“If you’ve got a life that so many people didn’t have, you can’t waste it,” she said.
“TALK THE TIGER”
As a young woman, Kerr worked as a textile designer, art teacher and script writer at the BBC, before taking time out from work to raise her and her husband Tom’s two children.
It was while looking after her daughter Tacy when she was a toddler that Kerr made up the story of a little girl and her mother who are having tea at home when a friendly tiger arrives unannounced, eats all the food and then leaves, never to return.
“Talk the tiger,” Tacy would often say, and years later, when both of Kerr’s children were at school and she was wondering what to do next, she hit upon the idea of a book.
“The Tiger Who Came To Tea” came out in 1968 to critical acclaim and has been a bestseller ever since, with “Mog the Forgetful Cat” following in 1970, the first of a long series.
Kerr had found her calling, and has since produced a vast body of work that is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Jewish Museum in north London, where she has given talks to adoring audiences in a packed auditorium.
The exhibition includes drawings of pre-war Berlin, penned by Kerr as a little girl and saved by her mother who packed them along with a precious few items when the family fled the city.
Kerr is often asked whether the tiger has a hidden meaning, and some people have suggested that it might represent Hitler or the Nazis, invading her home and stealing her possessions. Kerr dismissed this, saying the idea for the tiger simply came from a visit to the zoo with Tacy, and the creature was harmless.
Some of Kerr’s more recent work reflects her changing perspective on life.
In “My Henry,” which is dedicated to Kerr’s late husband Tom, she depicts an elderly widow who appears to be blankly waiting for her tea but who in her imagination is enjoying amazing adventures with her husband, like riding a unicorn.
“You see a lady sitting there and she’s not doing anything and you tend to forget that of course she wasn’t always a little old lady. There’s all this colored stuff inside her,” said Kerr. “It’s all inside, bubbling.”
In “The Great Granny Gang,” a group of fit and fearsome old ladies who enjoy activities like repairing chimneys, mending cars or fixing potholes come together to foil a robbery.
Kerr strongly rejected suggestions that these works were her way of gently tackling ageism or stereotypical portrayals of women, saying it would be wrong to seek messages in her books.
“I’m terribly resistant to that. It’s not a thing you should do,” she said sternly, before breaking into a broad grin. “I never think about telling small children what to think.”
“Everything I do is autobiographical. I’m into old ladies because I’ve been one for some considerable time now.”