The 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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