Last night, I listened to the wonderful Judith Kerr talk to the Sunday Times’ Children’s Book Editor Nicolette Jones at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. I heard about her inspirations, her creative practice, her incredible experiences as a German-Jewish refugee in World War II and her love of cats.
At the risk of sounding unattractively gushing, I have long-awaited the opportunity to see one of my literary heroines in person. On a couple of previous occasions, the events were cancelled at the last minute as Kerr, who is an amazing 91 this year, was taken ill. Third time did prove to be lucky though and I am so glad that I had this opportunity, and in my home town too.
My first exposure to Judith Kerr was when I lived in Canada, when my class read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Kerr’s fictionalized autobiography of her family’s experiences as refugees during the Second World War. I always remember my horror that Anna, the young Judith, chose a games compendium as her one toy to take when they left their house, leaving her beloved pink rabbit behind. Anna believed, with the optimism of youth, that she would soon be home to collect her rabbit. Unfortunately this would never happen.
I read the book just before I moved to the UK from Canada and my mother and I were packing up our things to take. Unlike Anna, I was allowed to take my cuddly toys (the moving man even insisted upon it) and they were placed carefully in a crate, to travel slowly by boat and arrive 6 months later. My beloved rabbit Hoppy travelled with me though by air. She was too precious to risk leaving behind or getting lost at sea (which one of our boxes did).
For ages, I worried about what had happened to Anna’s rabbit and whether Hitler’s men did take the toy.
A pink rabbit appears in, I think, the only Mog book we hadn’t read till last night, when I dashed out to buy it after the talk: Mog and Bunny. The toy looks incredibly like the pink rabbit of the memoir’s name, though Kerr laughed this off as coincidence:
image courtesy of Waterstones.com (who hosted the talk)
Kerr told us that the idea for the story came from one of her cats (she has lived with 9 to this day), who walked around mewing with a toy rabbit hanging out her mouth and treated it like a kitten until she was old enough to have kittens herself. When she lined up her kittens, the toy rabbit would be there too, though the cat was becoming increasingly puzzled as to its inactivity. In the end, the cat gave it a gentle nudge towards independence by leaving it in a quiet corner of the garden with a dead mouse beside it for sustenance.
Little gems like these are fascinating to hear and Judith Kerr related them with warmth and humour. Despite attempts by some critics to read a deeper psychological meaning into her texts, Kerr humours their theories – saying they are ‘good’ but gently rejecting them. Why did she choose a tiger as the unannounced visitor in The Tiger Who Came to Tea? A tiger was an apt symbol for a Nazi, surely? And the story a metaphor for the fear she and her family felt as refugees fleeing from Hitler’s men? Smiling, Kerr replied ‘A Nazi might come into your house and eat everything there but would you cuddle it?’
One person asked whether the cat that can be seen on one page in her new book The Crocodile Under the Bed was a nod to Mog (the two look remarkably similar). Kerr smiled and said if so it wasn’t a conscious choice – she just likes to fill blank spaces with cats, which she said are easier to draw than geese, for example.
Her most recent research centres on seals and she was keen to extol the virtues of Google. She had previously planned to travel to a seal sanctuary in Scotland to observe and draw them but then discovered a plethora of images within seconds by just Googling ‘seals’. She was quite animated about the ease of the internet and how she now communicates with her editor nearly entirely by email. But she still prefers more traditional forms of artwork in her own creations, with pencils and paper her preferred form.
I loved hearing about the work, the inspiration but what really struck a chord with me was Kerr’s attitude to life. She naturally eschews self-pity for a genuine and infectious optimism and joy in life. She firmly states that she enjoyed her experience as a refugee, recalling her delight at viewing Paris from the window of their run-down rooms, telling her father how lucky they were to be living that kind of life. She says that this view is not just her own either – other refugee children felt similarly excited. Kerr admitted that life during the Blitz was difficult, but preferred to focus on how lovely people were in times of hardship, especially when her parents spoke English with very heavily accented German accents. She carries this pleasure with the small things in everyday life to this day, leaving everyone who listened to her marveling at her happiness. It is this quality that shines through her words and pictures and no doubt will continue enchanting generations to come.