Judith Kerr’s Creatures : Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr's CreaturesJudith Kerr’s Creatures by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to define how beautiful a book this when you’re typing a review in that thick haze you get after crying, but I shall. I shall try.

I love Judith Kerr. There are a handful of authors that I cling to in children’s literature, like somebody who is drowning and in search of a lifebelt and Judith Kerr is one of them. She is my safe space, my shore. I have loved her from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit through to Mog the Forgetful Cat and back again. And, whilst I am on this paragraph in which I confess my love, if you have not seen this documentary on Kerr and her work, give yourself an hour out and do so. It is a joy, she is a joy, and I love her.

Judith Kerr’s Creatures functions as an autobiography, lavishly illustrated and holding many remarkable items relating to a remarkable life. It is graceful and self-effacing and a must for anybody interested in writing, illustration and the life behind books that become classics. Seeing some of Kerr’s earlier work juxtaposed against the proofs of her later work is undefinably wonderful because it allows the reader to trace the development of a brilliant artist. Line, for example, is something I talk about a lot in picture books because you can do so much with such a simple thing. The thickness of it. The thinness. The direction. The boldness. The shape. Try it now, doodle a sad line, a happy line. I’ll bet one curves down and one curves up and that, beyond it, you’ll see the shape of a face tight and sad, or round and full of joy. That’s line, that’s the evocation of line and that’s what we do with it as people. We fill it. We give it context. Kerr’s line is a wonderful thing in that it is human and full of movement. There are sketches in this that sing of movement and of the ability to watch and study people. To find the shape of them, to find the bits that matter in the sketch and to capture that. What skill. What utter, hard-won, determined skill.

I love this book. I am rhapsodic over this book. I love how respectful it is, and how it does not belittle any of Kerr’s remarkable achivements or skill, and how it treats them with the reverence they deserve. This is art and I shall fight you if you say otherwise, for this book is beautiful and we are privileged to have Kerr’s work in our lives.

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The Tiger Who Came To Tea : Judith Kerr

The Tiger Who Came to TeaThe Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kerr was the first author to genuinely, utterly terrify me. There are moments in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit that brought home the impact of war to me like no other. She is rich and warm with her writing and yet unafraid to inject anarchy and darkness. She is one of the grand dames of children’s literature and I love her lots. (And I would also like a reality show where she and Shirley Hughes and KM Peyton sit and talk shop with each other and occasionally eat cake.)

The Tiger Who Came To Tea is eloquent and mischievious and, underneath it all, a poignant tribute to childhood and the roar of an unfed stomach. It’s hard to not read a little bit of Kerr’s background into this book, her life as refugee, as immigrant to London, and as mother.

The story itself is very simple. A tiger comes to tea. The tiger eats everything and then leaves. Daddy comes home and as there’s nothing left for him to eat, he takes Sophie and Mummy out for tea. And whilst they’re out, they make sure to buy a big tin of Tiger food.

The tiger himself is a beautiful creation. Somehow Kerr manages to inject a courtly, gentlemanlike air into her creation; the bold orange and black lines curving politely into place whilst Sophie, in bright excitement, rests her hair against his fur. But this isn’t the sole joy of Kerr’s tiger: his eyes, oh his eyes. There’s an edge to him and it’s conveyed in his eyes, the way he surveys the room looking for more food and drink.

I also love how this book demonstrates another aspect of the role a picture book can play. Kerr’s artwork, beat-like against the white space of the page, is incredibly evocative of the city and the way we lived in the city at that time. The shops nestled brightly against each other and glowing in the lamp light, the kettle balancing on the rings and the way the grovery boy bikes down the road with his basket of goods on the front. This is picture books acting as archive, as history and as cultural repository. The way Daddy wears his hat. The way the milkman has his blue overcoat and the open sided van. It’s lovely, and I think this aspect of picture books is something that can easily be forgotten.

The final thing to note of this book is Kerr’s precise and beautiful prose. She’s so simple and so confident in her writing that you can’t help but wonder when the Tiger will come to tea at your house. Every sentence is laden with a sort of stunning conviction. Of course there’s not enough food in your house to feed the tiger (and will he end up eating you?) The way she teases us, always, with that danger and then gives us the satisfying ending – a full stomach both metaphorically and textually – is nothing short of perfection.

I love you Judith Kerr, I really do.

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The Other Way Round : Judith Kerr

The Other Way Round (Out of the Hitler Time, #2)The Other Way Round by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Other Way Round is a darker, more sober book. Anna is now in London, war is hitting home, and she is growing up. Adolescence is not easy, and in the middle of wartime, it is even less.

Kerr’s writing remains ineffable. She is precise, concise, and exact. Each word has a weight, a value to it, that creates a deceptively simple and yet intensely acute effect. Anna / Judith is growing up. She is in love, she is out of love, she is hurt, she is happy, she is sad. There’s an immediacy to this young woman’s story that is defiantly appealing.

But there’s also a darkness to this book, in direct contradiction to the idealism present in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Some of this is naturally due to Anna’s age, but a lot of this is due to the context. This story is in the middle of London in the middle of the Second World War. We have bombs, we have nights spent tight down in the cellar, and we have empty spaces where houses once stood.

The Other Way Round is a story that shifts the refugee experience into a search for self identity. Anna’s not running anymore and now she’s trying to find herself. It’s also a story about family, as many of Kerr’s are. The changing relationship between Anna and her parents is explored sensitively and poignantly and indeed painfully.

If you do not know Kerr’s work, her elegant, beautiful, and heartfelt work, then now is the time to become acquainted.

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit : Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Out of the Hitler Time, #1)When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is one of those that feel somehow effortless, as if they were just waiting to be written. Kerr’s fictionalised story of her childhood is, and deserves to be, one of those eternal classics of children’s literature.

Anna (Judith) is growing up in Germany. She is Jewish, and her father is a famous writer. Following the rise of Nazism, and the climate becoming increasingly fragile in Germany, her parents make the decision to leave. This book follows Anna throughout the first part of her journey, from Germany to Switzerland to France and finally to England. The story is then continued in the much darker The Other Way Round.

Anna is young, an innocent in many ways, and we see their journey through her eyes. Kerr’s ability is immense in this book, and she delivers the story in a simple, graceful style. It’s a quiet book in many parts, reminiscent stylistically of Noel Streatfield’s A Vicarage Family, but one that dips into the shadows of imminent war without reservation. There’s parts in this book that I remember from my first reading, many years ago, and the impact they had then has not lessened.

It’s hard not to love the family because of the palpable nature of Kerr’s writing. There’s a repeated motif of family throughout the book, and the emphatic suggestion that Anna does not mind what happens as long as they are all together. It all adds up to make an idealistic, yet incredibly poignant read.

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