Books

The beautiful life lessons we learned from Judith Kerr

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Sarah Shaffi
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Judith Kerr, author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Judith Kerr’s books remain popular decades after they were published, and for good reason.

Author Judith Kerr, who has died aged 95, brought us some of our favourite childhood books.

From The Tiger Who Came to Tea to her books about Mog the cat, Kerr’s work was funny, warm and often taught us something without us even realising.

Kerr only started publishing books in her 40s, and never gave up working. A new book, The Curse of the School Rabbit, is due out next month.

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Born in Berlin, Kerr used her own story of having to flee Germany with her family as the basis for her semi-autobiographical book When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit. The book is about Anna, a nine-year-old whose father goes missing, and who then has to escape Germany with her mum and her brother, leaving their home, friends and beloved toys behind.

The idea for The Tiger Who Came to Tea came about when Kerr was at home with her daughter, and the pair were wishing for someone to come round and liven things up.

Kerr’s books remain incredibly popular, with The Tiger Who Came to Tea and When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit never having been out of print since they were first published.

It’s easy to see why — Kerr had a knack for creating stories that appealed to children and adults alike, and that never went out of fashion. She was never afraid to tackle big and difficult topics, including in Goodbye Mog, in which the beloved cat died.

The enduring popularity of Kerr’s work was seen in 2015 when Mog’s Christmas Calamity, a new book about the cat produced to coincide with Sainsbury’s Christmas campaign, went to number one. It made her the oldest author, at 92, to have a number one in the charts.

Earlier this month, Kerr was named Illustrator of the Year at the British Book Awards, and she continued to attend book events into her 90s.

Judith Kerr pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2013.
Judith Kerr pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2013. 

Her publisher HarperCollins said she died at home after a short illness.

Ann-Janine Murtagh, executive publisher at HarperCollins Children’s Books, said: “It has been the greatest honour and privilege to know and publish Judith Kerr for over a decade, though of course her history with HarperCollins goes back over 50 years. 

“She came to visit our offices frequently – always bringing her books in person; often arriving on the number 9 bus and leaving us all full of laughter and in awe of her astonishing zest for life and absolute commitment to delivering the very best books for children. Her incisive wit and dry humour made her both excellent company and a joy to publish. 

“She embraced life as one great big adventure and lived every day to the full. She was absolutely thrilled when I gave her the news that she had been named Illustrator of the Year earlier this month. Her characters and books have delighted generations of children and provided some of the first and fondest reading memories of childhood. My thoughts at this time are with her children, Matthew and Tracy, and her grandchildren.”

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Charlie Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins, said: “Judith Kerr was a wonderful and inspiring person who was much loved by everyone at HarperCollins. She was a brilliantly talented artist and storyteller who has left us an extraordinary body of work.

“Always understated and very, very funny, Judith loved life and loved people – and particularly she loved a party. Beautifully dressed and with a smile on her face she would light up the room and would always be one of the last to leave. Time spent in her company was one of life’s great privileges and I am so grateful to have known her.”

Kerr’s death is a loss to the world of books, but we’re lucky enough to have her words — from both her books and her interviews — to keep us company and to create whole new generations of Kerr fans.

Here are some of the life lessons the author taught us.

We all belong somewhere

“We’ll come back,” said Papa.

“I know,” said Anna… “But it won’t be the same - we won’t belong. Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?”

“I suppose not,” said Papa. “Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”

From When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit

We shouldn’t underestimate older people

“You see a lady sitting there and she’s not doing anything and you tend to forget that of course she wasn’t always a little old lady. There’s all this colored stuff inside her, it’s all inside, bubbling.”

Judith Kerr holds her Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal, awarded in 2013.
Judith Kerr holds her Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal, awarded in 2013.

Even successful people have doubts

“I find it difficult to draw. I rub out far more than I draw.”

We all want to be able to say goodbye

“What everybody wants is to be able to say goodbye to their families, look out at some trees or something and say, goodbye, it’s been beautiful, but that’s it now. If it were possible to end one’s life legally, I think all of us old ladies would enjoy what remains of our lives much more.”

We should never tell people what to do

It’s not a thing you should do, i never think about telling small children what to think.

Images: Getty

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