Did The Tiger Who Came to Tea tear Judith Kerr’s world apart?

MogLast month, in all the uproar surrounding the European elections and the government reeling from crisis to crisis, something happened that put other news in the shade: Judith Kerr died. One of the greatest and most loved children’s authors ever, she was responsible for The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog the Forgetful Cat and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – classics which will never go out of print because, well, who can imagine a world without them?

When Hitler stoleTo be able to write and illustrate as brilliantly as Kerr did is a rare gift. I can think of only a handful of other authors who are in her league: Erics Carle and Hill with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where’s Spot respectively; John Burningham, Jill Murphy, Raymond Briggs and Babette Cole with numerous books apiece; and of course, the master of animal delineation, characterisation and humour, Beatrix Potter.

TigerBut for me Judith Kerr stands out because in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, she created the Picture Book of Picture Books.  Tapping into what matters most to young children – warmth, safety, excitement, surprise and mystery – she makes every word and every picture count. Taking a child’s every day experience – there’s someone at the door, who can it be? – she transforms it into a thrilling, magical world in which the visitor can turn out to be a great big furry tiger who sits down and makes himself at home, enjoying all the tea and cake Sophie and her mother can offer. What child can resist that? Mine are in their thirties and even now, if the doorbell goes unexpectedly, my daughter launches straight into, ‘It can’t be the milkman, because he’s been already. And it can’t be Daddy, because he’s got his keys…’

There’s another, special, reason for why the book means so much to me. Too old for it when first published in 1968, I first spotted The Tiger Who Came to Tea in a bookshop when browsing for my own children – and felt I’d come home. Something in those charming, happy illustrations took me straight back to my childhood in 1960s Germany, in a way no other English picture book had ever done. I’d thought the two countries differed markedly in their style of book illustration; now in my hands lay delightful proof that I was wrong, that artistic traditions in the two nationalities could overlap after all. (Sadly I have no picture books to show you what I mean; but look at the eyes in the fine line drawing of Gulliver by the wonderful German illustrator, Horst Lemke, below, and tell me you can’t see a bit of Kerr’s tiger there.)

Gulliver

From Erich Kastner’s retelling of Gulliver’s Travels,
illustrated by Horst Lemke

Only years later did I discover that the solidly British-sounding Judith Kerr was German by birth, and spent the first 9 years of her life growing up in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power forced her family into exile. Terrible as her country under the Nazis was, there’s something both touching and life-affirming in the way that happy influences of Judith’s early German childhood – books, pictures, stories, games – helped to mould her artistic style as an adult, even while her nationality itself changed.

In recent years Judith Kerr pronounced herself much amused by the clever theory from Michael Rosen and others that the Tiger is a metaphor for the Gestapo; the Daily Mail recalled that ‘in a 2013 BBC documentary, he pointed out that “she was no stranger, to the knock on the door, the monster tearing her world apart.”’

Er, Michael Rosen, have you actually read the book? The tiger is no monster; he’s soft, furry and cuddly. These are not adjectives usually applied to the Gestapo. For this crackpot idea to stick, there’d have to be a sense of menace about the creature but instead he allows Sophie to stroke and hug him while munching his way through the biscuit cupboard. As the Daily Mail article confirms, ‘Judith’s patient answer …was always the same. The tiger was just a tiger. It was hungry, and it wanted its tea.’

Ride with me

Ride with Me Through ABC by Horst Lemke

Of course it was. Kerr is much too good an author to weigh down her enchanting book with such a crass message. Far more interesting is the secret contained in the pictures themselves, of how Kerr’s artistic style can’t help but reveal her roots in the happy German childhood she enjoyed before the Nazis’ brutal regime destroyed everything.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric blog)

 

Something for children to get their teeth into: World Book Week 2019

5803022F-E37C-41CF-922E-3D9A679688ECI’m always delighted to visit schools, whether or not it’s World Book Week (which it just has been, in March). Taking a group of 9 – 13 year-olds on an illustrated tour through Dante, Greek mythology and the First World War (Ante’s Inferno) or Doctor Faustus, demons and Elizabethan Magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), and seeing their eyes light up at the richness, complexity and sheer power of stories is hugely inspiring for a writer. But one of my school visits this year took a different form, one that gave me more than the usual butterflies as I wrote the date in my diary. Not just butterflies, in fact. Trepidation.B1BA6FB4-9FC8-40A5-9541-67A315DC616E

Stretham Primary is a lovely village school in a not particularly well-heeled part of Cambridgeshire, in which quite a number of children qualify for pupil premium. I’ve visited a couple of times before and been bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the eagerness with which the 9 – 11 year-olds lap up facts about Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan natural philosophy and the Faustian pact. It never ceases to sadden me how the book world generally underestimates young people, considering all these themes far too adult for them to understand. From my experience at Stretham, not only do children have no problem grasping them, they are also excited by stories that give them something to get their teeth into.5798B2EE-E72A-4CC2-A2DA-1507C388A9DF

So why the trepidation?

Well…. this time, the children were doing something for me.

As a writer you hope you’re on the right track, that what grabs you will grab your intended audience: but there’s nothing like being able to put this to the test. I needed to try out my latest work in progress, and ten 11 year-olds had bravely volunteered to read The Fall of a Sparrow and tell me what they thought. At 50,000 words this was quite a commitment. And scary for me… what if none of them got beyond the first chapter, the first PAGE?

Shortly before the day of the visit, I received a package in the post. Feedback …eek.

Taking a deep breath, I went through all the painstakingly written comments – and breathed out again.

07F08712-8B97-4318-8E31-2763BF32907FThe children had enjoyed the story. They got the characters, the situation, they felt with Eleanor – the heroine – in her predicament, as she delved deeper and deeper into family history, uncovering a tragedy that had never been confronted before. If some of the readers felt that occasionally, too much description held up things, they still all wanted to keep turning the pages, all the way to the end. And now they couldn’t wait for my visit so they could pepper me with questions – about the characters, the ideas, what it’s really like being at a boarding school (since that’s where the story is set) and most of all, how soon will The Fall of the Sparrow be published so they could ALL read it?

Ah, now that really is the question….

Never mind the story, what’s the theme?

Sometimes when submitting my work, I get a question that stumps me:

What’s the theme of your story?

It’s a story, I want to reply, it doesn’t have a theme. Which isn’t strictly true, but to expect a writer to sum up the complex interweaving of character, purpose and plot that makes up a novel in one word feels to me like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit down and decide to write a book about human relationships, or loneliness, or the abuse of power, bullying, courage in the face of danger, overcoming difficulties or redemption. A story forms itself in my mind which will have all these elements and more, but it won’t be about any single one of these.

 It will be about an unconfident, friendless 12 year-old girl who finds herself on a journey to the bottom of Hell (Ante’s Inferno), or a geeky 13 year-old boy, driven by desperation to make a pact with a demon (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst).
Or an angry 11 year-old sent away from home to a school where the only person who will speak to her is a weird, excitable 9 year-old boy that all the other girls pretend isn’t there (The Fall of a Sparrow, current wip). Other elements are woven into the story – Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno and WW1 in Ante’s Inferno, Elizabethan magic and the Faustus legend in Henry Fowst – but no single one of these becomes THE story’s theme and nor should it be. If you really want to boil my books down to a single theme, it’s about a young person who finds life and making friends difficult, who through a series of challenges and dangers gains experience, self-knowledge and a better relationship with the world around them.

Jane EyreNot a great sales pitch, is it? I mean, you could summarise just about any book that’s ever been written this way – Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Three Little Pigs, for heavens sake -and give no flavour of what they are really about.

Do we demand this of all works of literature, that each be identified by a single theme? How about:

Macbeth: the battle between Good and Evil.

The Lord of the Rings: the battle between Good and Evil (with hobbits).

Harry Potter: the battle between Good and Evil (with wizards).

The Narnia Chronicles: the battle between Good and Evil (with multiple mythological creatures).The Last Battle

His Dark Materials; the battle between Good and Evil (with daemons).

Um…

I realise I may be missing something here. Worse, that if I can’t summon up an original way to label my stories, then maybe they are just not strong enough to stand out. I hope not. But I also suspect a covert laziness on the part of the person demanding a theme, to find an easy way to sell my book to their colleagues or (more likely) reject it out of hand. Your hero has trouble making friends, do they? Ah, so that’s the Bullying Theme. We have enough of those on our list already, sorry.

This is my problem with themes. If you write children’s books, your main character is a child. They will have enemies or there would be no story. The enemies are not nice to them. This is called bullying. It is exactly what happens in books for adults, only there it’s called threatening, menacing, violent behavior etc, and the people who do it are Bad Guys, Villains, Psychos. Yet no publisher would dismiss a gripping, page-turning thriller just because yet again, it’s about Bad People Being Nasty to Good (or at least not so bad) People.

Bullying appears in my stories but they are not ‘about’ bullying. The behavior arises from clashes between the characters, conflicting goals, problems in their own lives, troubled back stories and secret fears. All the ingredients, in short, needed to build characters strong enough to drive an exciting, complex, satisfying story where the reader really cares what happens.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

 

 

Bucking the trend in children’s books at the Buckingham Literary Festival

St John & St James, Chackmore 1

Happy festivalling! With Year 6 teacher Mr Davidson

Two days ago I drove to Stowe for a school visit. No, not that school, the famous one set in the fabulous 18th century neoclassical Stowe House; rather, the delightful St James & St John Church of England Primary School at Chackmore, a small village nestling on land that slopes up to the glorious Stowe Landscape Gardens (owned by the National Trust). Now in its third year, the Buckingham Literary Festival is going from strength to strength and I was thrilled to be invited to be part of its schools outreach programme, enthusing young people with the joys of reading and writing.

St John & James 5

Presenting the original Doctor Faustus, or Joannes Faustus

If I have a bee in my bonnet, it’s about how often children are underestimated in the pleasure they can derive from complex ideas in books. I write stories inspired by great classical and historical themes, subjects often deemed ‘too difficult’ for children. But in my experience, as long as the story is clearly written, fast-paced and gripping, and the characters sympathetic and well-rounded, young readers can easily absorb ideas from the adult literary world and often grasp them more instinctively than people many years older.

Year 6 at St James & St John knew nothing about Elizabethan magic or the legend of Doctor Faustus but they listened attentively as I told them about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, and had no trouble understanding the dangers of a Faustian pact. Which will hopefully serve them well in their future lives, if ever they feel under pressure – like poor Henry – to enter into the Wrong Sort of Agreement….

St John & St James, Chackmore 4

And now for the book signing!

They were a super audience, enthusiastically taking part in my 7 Ingredients Every Story Needs workshop and coming up with some really interesting questions at the end. The one that struck me most was from a girl who asked, ‘Why did you choose writing?’ Almost the same question as the more usual, ‘What made you become a writer?’ except that the answer leapt out in a way that surprised even me.

St John & St James, Chackmore 2Because you don’t choose writing, do you? It chooses you.

Thank you, St James and St John and Buckingham Literary Festival, for inviting me and for your splendid organisation.  The festival proper begins TONIGHT with a fun Quiz, followed by 3 days of events featuring top authors, Friday 15th – Sunday 17th June.

How to be a relaxed parent: read to your children.

Book House Summertown

The Book House, Summertown, closing in June 2018

Two weeks ago I had the melancholy task of collecting a book from the Book House, Summertown, Oxford.  Before I am deluged with outrage that I could ever describe a bookshop visit as melancholy, I’ll explain that this wonderful, deceptively spacious (as estate agents love to put it) jewel of a bookshop is closing in June 2018, and they’d asked me to take back the one copy of Ante’s Inferno still on their shelves.

Ante Passchendaele jacket

A younger sibling of the glorious Aladdin’s Cave that is the Book House in Thame, the Book House, Summertown, has been a fixture of this part of Oxford for nearly 30 years.

Book House Thame

Aladdin’s Cave – the Book House, Thame

 

During that time the Summertown shopping centre – as so many throughout the UK – underwent a sea change in character, with traditional stores giving way to coffee and charity shops. When I arrived in the 1980s, there were 3 butchers, 3 greengrocers, 2 newsagents, 2 off licences, a toyshop, a pet shop, a post office and, oh joy, a bookshop.

All have gone now, with the Book House holding out valiantly years longer than the others. Life has changed, our shopping habits have changed and – saddest of all – so have our reading habits. We are all reading less than we used to; according to the wonderful Book House manager Renee Holler (herself a prolific children’s author), sales are down even in children’s books, supposedly a growth area in the UK market.  Competition from ebooks, Amazon and supermarkets offering cut-price paperbacks add to the pressure and increasingly, it’s all too much for delightful independent bookshops like the Summertown Book House to withstand.

One reason for the decline in reading among children, according to the annual Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer survey from Nielsen Book Research, is that we are reading to them less than we used to. In 2013, 69% of preschool children were read to daily in 2013; five years later, only 51%. Parents of three to four-year-olds apparently ‘struggle to find energy at the end of the day.’

Dinosaur bookCall me a dinosaur (ooh, yes please) but this statement puzzles me as much as it saddens. Do these parents not put their toddlers to bed? In my memory, amid the nightly chaos of trying to clear up toys (rarely succeeded), cajoling squalling youngsters upstairs, into and out of the bath and finally to their beds, that moment when at last we sat down together and read Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Peepo Peepoor Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea was the gentlest, easiest and most relaxing of parental input.

So relaxing, in fact, that I’d frequently read myself to sleep, much to the annoyance of the child on my lap who’d turn and pinch my cheeks awake again. How do these parents, who lack the energy to read to their children, settle them into their beds without it?The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Now I have a 2 year-old grand-daughter, bedtime isn’t (yet) one of my tasks. But during the day she only has to set eyes on me to demand ‘Old King Cole’ (her current obsession, narrowly running ahead of Humpty Dumpty and the Grand Old Duke of York) before taking my hand and leading me to the sofa for a surfeit of nursery rhymes. I’m only too happy to comply, having always found reading aloud much less effort than creating imaginary games of Shops, or Lions and Zookeeper (to pick two of my daughter’s favourites when young). Their time will come, of course, along with the joys of television, ipads etc which for now the parents can control. But when it does, I’ll do all I can to keep alive this early love of books.

Meanwhile, a heartfelt plea: I totally get why Amazon is so successful. Online ordering is so convenient; I love having things delivered direct to my house instead of having to traipse round city centres trying to find them. So why not use the online ordering system operated by bookshops such as Blackwell’s and Waterstones? Often the prices match Amazon’s; you may have to wait a couple of days more for the delivery, that’s all. The difference is that you’re supporting not only the bookshops but also publishers, since while bookshops and wholesalers demand a 40 – 55% discount on the RRP of each title, Amazon is the greediest with its insistence of 60%.

And above all – as a little girl at Pegasus Primary School (part of the Blackbird Academy Trust) advised the Duchess of Cambridge on a recent visit – read to your children!

How books can save your life. Literally.

The Reading CureThere’s something about people all around me forgoing delicious things – like chocolate and wine – that has me thinking of food like never before. (I gave up giving anything up for New Year/Lent a long time ago. Life in winter is miserable enough.) How apt then, that Laura Freeman’s publishers, W & N, should have chosen mid-February to launch her memoir, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, in which she describes how the mouth-watering descriptions of food in the great classics saved her from the worst ravages of anorexia.  Siegfried Sassoon fortifying himself with boiled eggs and cocoa before a dawn hunt (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man);

siegfried_sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

Mrs Cratchit’s plum pudding – ‘a speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy’ (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) – these glorious images tempted her back to the warmth, nourishment and companionship of good things. For most of us, books are food for the soul; for Freeman, they turned out to be food for the body, too.

presenting-the-plum-pudding

Plum Pudding in A Christmas Carol

Reading her article in the Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/books-saved-me-from-starving-myself-to-death-ls2cd8c75, I wanted to punch the air. Anorexia is a terrible, relentless illness. Freeman describes the mental state it induces in terms of a library full of smashed book cases, in which the calm and order the sufferer longs for are reduced to splinters of glass and wood and rain spattered paper. The fact that books saved her, gave her ‘reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well,’ shows how much the senses are involved in the pleasure of reading, not just the mind.

For proof, I challenge you to read this list of provisions from St Agnes’s Eve by John Keats and not a) drool, or b) feel sick (depending on your sweetness of tooth).

‘…a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd

With jellies, soother than the creamy curd…’

Trifle

Not exactly Keats.

No prizes for guessing my reaction to these glorious lines. But then I always did like fruit jellies and cream, and my enjoyment of this poem harks back to some very early reading indeed. Aged 5, my favourite of the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards was the one where she and Bad Harry sneak into the larder and demolish a splendid trifle planned for his birthday party, beginning with the silver balls and jelly sweets on the top before diving into whipped cream, custard and sponge below. Ok, so it’s not exactly Keats… but it’s a fine example of the importance of food in children’s books.

Wind in the Willows picnicLaura Freeman cites glorious picnics in The Wind in the Willows, a theme also popular with Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five, Adventurous Four, Secret Seven – whatever – are sustained by freshly baked bread, new-laid eggs, delicious ham and – unforgettably – lashings of ginger beer.Famous Five

Delightful as these interludes are, their role in the plot shouldn’t be underrated, especially in adventure stories. If you’re going to thrust your characters into hair-raising situations, making them perform superhuman tasks, you’d better make sure you feed them. You’re already asking your readers to suspend a lot of disbelief; rendering your heroes immune to normal human needs is pushing it.

Ante Passchendaele jacketSending Ante with her companions, Gil and Florence, on a journey through Hell in Ante’s Inferno, I knew I had to allow them to stock up on energy and supplies to keep them going through all that heat and darkness. A break in Elysium, where Hector and Aeneas invite them to join in their cricket tea (er, you have to read the book) and Odysseus gives them water skins, did the trick:

‘Taking a strawberry, Ante allowed it to burst in her mouth, rolling its warmth and            sweetness on her tongue.’

My inspiration for calling up the sensuous pleasure of food was the scene in The Last Battle, where C S Lewis allows his characters a rest from all the fighting:

wild-strawberry‘Not far away from them rose a grove of trees, thickly leaved, but under every leaf there peeped out the gold or faint yellow or purple or glowing red of fruits such as no one has seen in our world… All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grape-fruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour.’

 

Just reading that again after all these years makes my mouth water.

How wonderful, then, that Laura Freeman’s delight in words has altered the balance of power between herself and her anorexia. It’s not a magic cure – she acknowledges the anorexia may never go away altogether – but it’s books that have brought her back to the idea of food and feasting with friends being something to enjoy, not dread.  Books can literally save your life.

But we knew that.

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

 

 

 

 

8 children’s names you won’t find in the Oxford Junior Dictionary

My bluebells Wytham

Do bluebells bloom in beech woods if there are no children to see them?

Here’s a nice bit of irony.  What do the following have in common?

Bluebell, Fern, Hazel, Heather, Ivy, Lark, Willow, Ash.

Capitalising these words for much-loved wild flowers, plants, trees and bird gives a clue: they are 8 of the most popular children’s names. They are also among a slew of natural terms omitted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary since 2007, on the grounds that they are no longer relevant to children’s lives.

ivy

The holly and the… um….

Together with beech, heron, kingfisher, buttercup, conker, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and a number of other words brimming with bright colours, textures and the sheer, quivering life of the natural world, they’ve had to be junked to make way for the dreariness of blog, broadband, bullet point, chatroom and voicemail. If you can come up with anything else that so encapsulates how stuffy, sedentary, and stale is the environment in which we expect our children to thrive, I’ll eat my HTML.

Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the – what?

Oxford Dictionaries protest that making children aware of the natural world isn’t their job. Their task is to reflect the world that children now find themselves in, listing everyday, urban, familiar words, not ones that hark back to a more rural society. There simply isn’t room for both.  They may have a point, but it set me wondering as to what a dictionary is actually for.  Aren’t you supposed to use it to look up words you don’t know, not just the ones you do?  Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Nina Bawden, Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell are widely read by children; all of the above words will appear in an amalgamation of their works. If it’s true that children’s lives are so impoverished they no longer know what a dandelion is, how can they find out?

Version 2

Christmas time – tum ti tum and wine

Actually, the answer is simple. As well as the space-limited Junior Dictionary (10,000 words, age 7 – 9 years) OUP publishes the Oxford Primary Dictionary (30,000 words, 8 – 10 years), which (I’m told) still contains these ‘archaic’ natural terms. Why bother with two reference works that practically overlap each other in their age range?  Forget the Junior Dictionary, OUP, and let children go straight from the Oxford First Dictionary (3,000 words, age 5 – 7) to the Primary one. Then everyone will be happy.

Lark

What larks?

Meanwhile, I can’t think of many words more relevant to children’s lives than what they – or their friends – happen to be called.  In a literary world defined by high tech, internet forums and social media, children themselves will have to act as a living dictionary of living things – rather like the outlaws in Fahrenheit 451 who become the books that no longer exist in print.

Buttercup

Poor little buttercup.

All we have to do is wait for otter, conker, beech and newt to start appearing on birth certificates.

Newt

I name this baby newt, Newt.

 

 

 

 

Could be a long wait.