It was a full house at The Olympic Cinema as legendary author and illustrator Judith Kerr took to her seat on the stage to reminisce about her remarkable life and books. Missed it? Arno Bryant brings you her memories of fleeing Nazi Germany, her love of Google and her stand for feline feminism.
Judith Kerr is one of Barnes’ most prestigious residents, having enjoyed a long career creating some of the most loved characters in children’s literature. Her book The Tiger Who Came To Tea is one of the bestselling children’s books of all time alongside her famous series of Mog the Cat stories.
Daughter of influential German theater critic and outspoken detractor of Hitler Alfred Kerr, Judith grew up amid the rising anti-Semitism of 1930’s Berlin and fled with her family just before the election of Hitler.
“We got to Zurich the day before the election and the morning after the election we heard that they had come to our house and demanded all our passports… My nearly 93 years are due to those two days,” Judith said. It’s a period in her life that would later inspire her novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
She spent much of her time drawing while living in Switzerland and then France. She showed the audience a series of her childhood sketches, one of which showed a windmill on top of a Dutch mountain. “I was never good at geography,” she laughed, “it would be a good place for a windmill if they had a mountain.”
She later moved to London for Art School where she “learned to draw properly,” but she states that she now gets inspiration from an unlikely source, namely Google. “You can google ‘open mouth tigers’ and it comes up and shows you where the teeth are which you could never do before. You could wait for hours at the zoo and never see that.”
She then won a scholarship at London’s Central School of Art and Design where she officially studied illustration, but actually spent her time doing life drawing. “For nearly three years I’d sign on in the illustration room then go and do whatever I liked… but then one day some idiot bureaucrat decided we needed a diploma and must write a thesis which naturally I was expected to do in illustration, and I hadn’t done any. It’s the only exam I’ve ever failed in my life.”
She took a job at the BBC, where her husband Nigel Kneale was a screenwriter, later leaving to have her two children. It was when making up stories for her daughter Tacy that the idea for The Tiger Who Came To Tea was formulated. “She used to say ‘talk the tiger’ quite menacingly, which I found quite annoying cos’ I thought my other stories were perfectly decent as well.”
It would be five years later, when both her children were at school, that she found time to make the story into a picture book. Her next foray into picture books was the hugely popular Mog serious inspired by her own cat of the same name. “When Mog was translated into German they made her a tom-cat, and I said, ‘no she’s female’, but they said ‘such an energetic enterprising cat must be a tom cat’… so I thought, ‘I’ll show them’, so in the next book she had kittens,” Judith grinned.
Now 93, Judith hasn’t stopped writing or illustrating and her latest book Mister Cleghorn’s Seal, a story of a man and his friendly seal, is incredibly based on a true story. It’s testament to her extraordinary life that the revelation that her father once adopted an orphaned seal before taking him on a train to his home in Berlin, comes as little surprise to the audience.
Judith is currently working on a new book which, although she is yet to reveal the story, she confirmed she’s completed a number of pages for. Watch this space.