Thursday 20 June 2019

Obituary: Judith Kerr

Author of the 'Mog' books, 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea' and 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit'

Simple stories: Judith Kerr
Simple stories: Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr, the writer, who died last Thursday aged 95, created the popular children's character Mog, the foolish but well-meaning black-striped tabby cat, and was the author of the bestselling The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968).

Judith Kerr drew on real life in her writing. She began the 16-book Mog series with Mog The Forgetful Cat (1970), while her husband, the writer Nigel Kneale, was busy on Quatermass, the BBC television science-fiction horror series. But while he drew on the real threat of the atomic bomb, she drew on a more homely reality - the developing personalities of her own young family.

The children in the Mog stories, Nicky and Debbie, carried the second names of her children; Mog's family were called Thomas because Nigel Kneale was Tom to his family and friends; the illustrations in the books, drawn by the author herself, featured her children's scattered toys and the interior of the family home in Barnes.

It was always the human background that shaped Judith Kerr's writing and, through Mog's adventures and misdemeanours, she explored the nature of family love, concern and acceptance. Though she was writing for young children, she never fought shy of tackling difficult issues. In her book, Goodbye Mog (2002), written when she was nearly 80, Judith Kerr explored the nature of dying and being remembered through the death of the family pet, though she confessed to being somewhat relieved to see the back of her well-intentioned but accident-prone feline hero.

Judith Kerr worked in a biblical tradition in which the simplest stories convey the most profound emotions, and for many readers the most compelling of her books was When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), a lightly fictionalised account of her experiences as a refugee from Nazi Germany - part of an acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, Out of the Hitler Time.

Inspired by the unsentimental style of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series (which gives a humorous child's-eye account of the often harrowing adventures of an American pioneering family), the book became required reading in German schools and remains a benchmark for the way to tell difficult truths to children.

Judith Kerr was born in Berlin on June 14 1923. Her family was Jewish, though completely assimilated. Her mother, Julia, a practising Christian, was a brilliant mathematician and pianist who also wrote two operas, and her maternal grandfather, Robert Weismann, had been secretary of state for Prussia in the Weimar Republic.

His traditionalist views clashed markedly with those of Judith's father, Alfred Kerr, a socialist author and theatre critic for the Berliner Tageblatt and Frankfurter Zeitung.

A former pupil of the writer Theodor Fontaine, Alfred Kerr had interviewed Emile Zola, spoken at Ibsen's funeral, written the libretto for a song cycle by Richard Strauss and become friends with Albert Einstein, H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw. By the time his daughter was born, he was regarded as a supreme arbiter of literary taste, a role that earned him the epithet Kulturpapst (cultural Pope) of Germany.

The Kerr household was visited by the leading writers, intellectuals and statesmen of the day and Judith would recall witnessing, as an eight-year old, the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann drinking Bruderschaft with her father. A year later, Hauptmann was collaborating with the newly installed Nazi regime, while Alfred Kerr, whose name was on a Nazi death list, had fled to Switzerland.

Sunday Independent

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