An interview with Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr next to the 'Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Author and illustrator Judith Kerr created The Tiger Who Came to Tea for her young children. As she celebrates 50 years of its publication, the National Trust is hosting a touring exhibition of her drawings from the book starting at Mottisfont in Hampshire from 7 July to 2 September. She tells Carolyn Boyd about the inspiration for the book.

It’s 50 years since 'The Tiger' was published, does it seem that long since you created it?
Yes, you think back and one was a different person then, the children were young. I’d made up stories for them but this was the one my daughter Tacy liked, about a tiger who came to tea. She used to say 'Talk the tiger!' and so I told it so many times. I was very pleasantly surprised when they said they’d publish it. I certainly had no idea that it would be the success it has become.

Why do you think it’s stood the test of time?
I think because it was a bedtime story for this particular child and I put in everything that she liked, such as going out in the dark, because she was crazy about going out in the dark. I’ve heard from other parents that their children love the bit about going out in the dark, so obviously they all feel like that.

Has this changed as you’ve grown older?
I make up stories now which I hope children will like and which amuse me, but I no longer have this thing of knowing a small child very, very well and therefore, writing a story absolutely tailor-made to that child. In the first Mog book the policeman comes and he says, ‘I’ve known watch dogs but never a watch cat!’ and my son, who loved words, I knew he would think that was wonderful.

Your book 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' is based on your childhood as a refugee moving from Berlin to Britain via Switzerland and Paris, can you tell me what happened?
My father was a very well-known journalist, a drama critic. People say that he transformed the German language; he used words surprisingly, and wittily. He saw the threat of the Nazis very early on and made fun of them, and they hated him. We went to Switzerland because my father thought he could work for the Zürcher Zeitung newspaper because he’d written for them lots of times before, but they didn’t like to offend Hitler so suddenly they wouldn’t touch him.

And so you had to flee elsewhere?
He could speak perfect French and write in French and loved France so we went to Paris, which I loved. We went to French schools and I was 10 and my brother was 12 and you just learn the language at that age. But it was very difficult for my father to earn a living in Paris, he spoke and wrote perfect French. He wrote a few pieces for French newspapers but it was 1935 and everybody was out of work.

Judith Kerr looks at 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea' artwork
Judith Kerr looks at the 'Tiger Who Came to Tea' artwork
Judith Kerr looks at 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea' artwork

How did you come to live in England?
My mother always wanted to go to England, because she could speak perfect English, whereas my father could speak perfect French. He thought he would try writing a film script; it was the history of Napoleon seen through the eyes of his mother who was an old Corsican woman. It was a good idea. They tried to sell it but the French wouldn’t touch it and then it got to the film director Alexander Korda [a Hungarian Jew] in England and he bought it for £1,000. I suspect more and more now that the reason he bought it was to help which was very good, because as a result of that we came to England which is what my mother wanted to do all along. At that point it all looked terribly good and they thought they were going to have a great career in films, but the film was never made and it was much harder for my father because he lost his language. I was 12, nearly 13, when we came here and I began to understand a bit more about what was happening to my parents.

Do you think it’s important for children’s literature to shed a light on darker periods of history like that?
I’m very glad it’s seen like that, but it’s not how I saw it. I wrote ['When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit'] when the children were more or less the same age as my brother and I were at the time. There were no other young children in my family, so being a mum was totally unchartered and you always wonder, what should I do in this situation? And then you think, well what was it like when I was a child? Then, it was totally different, a different language and so I wanted to tell them what it had been like.

An exhibition of Judith Kerr's illustrations and more from the Tiger Who Came to Tea goes on a tour of National Trust places from July 2018.

A version of this interview was first published in the National Trust Magazine, Summer 2018