Obituary: Judith Kerr, writer and illustrator behind The Tiger Who Came To Tea

Judith Kerr, author. Born: 14 June 1923 in Berlin, Germany. Died: 22 May 2019, aged 95

Judith Kerr at her home in London in 2018 (Picture: Getty Images)
Judith Kerr at her home in London in 2018 (Picture: Getty Images)

Judith Kerr put pen to paper on her first book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, after pleas from her “bossy” daughter. The story of a tea-guzzling tiger, who turns up unannounced and eats and drinks Sophie and her mother out of the house, was published in 1968. It became a picture book classic – children are still turning its pages and it has never been out of print. And the story – the tiger does not return – has sparked debate a possible hidden meaning.

The author and illustrator, also famous for her Mog the cat books, was born in Berlin in 1923. She has said she could not “remember a time when I didn’t want to draw”.

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Her family left Germany in 1933 to escape the rise of the Nazis and Kerr, as a child, came to England.

Her father, Alfred Kerr, a German-Jewish writer and theatre critic, had openly criticised the Nazis and the regime would go on to publicly burn his books.

Kerr studied at the Central School of Art and she later worked as a scriptwriter for the BBC. The writer and illustrator, who was made an OBE, wrote about her childhood experiences fleeing Nazi Germany. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was an autobiographical retelling of her family’s escape from Germany in the 1930s, the first part of her Out Of The Hitler Time trilogy.

“I did write about dark things because dark things happened to my family,” she told the Press Association.

Kerr married the celebrated screenwriter Nigel Kneale – the man behind the Quatermass sci-fi dramas – in 1954. She left the BBC to look after their two children, Matthew and Tacy, who inspired her first picture book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

Kerr recently told an audience, at an awards ceremony, how the book about the greedy tiger came to fruition. “The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a story I made up for my two-year-old daughter, who was very bossy,” she said. “I used to tell her all sorts of other stories as well, which I thought were perfectly good, which she dismissed with the words ‘Talk the tiger’. So, when she and her brother were both at school, I thought I’d try to make it into a picture book,” she said.

The much-loved children’s book has since sold more than five million copies and is being adapted for the small screen.

Channel 4 will air a special animated adaptation of the story this Christmas.

Kerr never stopped doing what she loved – saying just months ago she was working “most days”. Recent books included Katinka’s Tail, announced when Kerr was 94 and inspired by the author’s ninth cat. It hit the shelves 47 years after her first Mog book, Mog The Forgetful Cat, was published.

Mog had featured in more than 15 titles, until Goodbye Mog in 2002, in which the beloved pussy died.

Katinka’s Tail told the story of a “perfectly ordinary cat with a not-so-ordinary tail”, and featured a “wondrous journey into a forest and on to the moon”.

Kerr’s most recent book was Mummy Time, published last year, about a parent distracted by her phone. But Kerr said: “I didn’t want to knock mothers. It can be very boring.”

She added: “I don’t do any of the screen stuff myself. I love to see the world. I’m the only person who sees the world!”

Asked if other people are missing out, she said: “I think they probably are... I am an illustrator. I look at things. I think people who draw all do. I love looking at things. Anything is interesting.”

HarperCollins Children’s Books said Kerr’s new book, The Curse Of The School Rabbit, would be published by June this year.

Kerr was awarded the Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

Just last week she was named Illustrator Of The Year at the British Book Awards.

Kerr died aged 95, following a short illness.