Book of the Month: May 2019

This week our world has lost a bit of magic along with the great children’s book author-illustrator Judith Kerr’s passing. I would like dedicate this post to talk about one of her wonderful books – The Tiger Who Came to Tea (HarperCollins Children’s Books 1968) as my Book of the Month. But it’s one of the best books of all time, really.

First, I must confess. As I was born and grew up in Japan, none of Judith Kerr’s books was a part of my childhood (although I’m pretty sure we had Japanese editions in the 80s). The first time I heard her name was when I volunteered at the Barne’s Children’s Literature Festival 4 years ago. Her talk was sold out. The big marquee was packed with people spilling out. Some people were pressing their ears against the sides of the marquee in attempt to catch what she was saying. I was like ‘Who is this old lady?’ and the sight was enough to make me look her up.

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I learned one of her most popular picture books was called The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I liked the sound of it (I like tigers and tea). When I picked up a copy, however, I wasn’t impressed by the rather old-fashioned cover illustration (compared to Where the Wild Things Are which was published around the same time). But I opened the book anyway to see what’s all the fuss about. And I was glad I did.

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Probably no need but just in case you have never read The Tiger Who Came to Tea, I will tell the story. It follows a young girl named Sophie and her mother whose afternoon tea is interrupted by a hungry tiger. The tiger asks to stay to tea and he eats everything. Not just all the cakes and tea. He eats up Daddy’s supper and cleans out the fridge and cupboards AND drinks all the water from the tap! Then the tiger just leaves politely, leaving Sophie and Mummy not knowing what to do (Sophie can’t even take bath because the tiger has drunk all the water). However, when Daddy gets home, he had a solution. They went out and had nice meal in a cafe.

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The story is pretty surreal, if not bonkers, to be honest, but that’s why I like it. There’s no scream or panic when the tiger appears at the door. Mummy just invites him in. And the tiger is cheeky but oddly polite from the beginning to the end. Next day Sophie and Mummy go big grocery shopping and buy an extra big tin of tiger food just in case the tiger comes back. Wait…A TIGER FOOD??

My favourite bit in the book is the ending. You learn that the tiger never came back. What intrigues me here is the image of the tiger. He is looking back with mischievous smile and gently saying goodbyes through a trumpet. It strikes me as rather odd since he was a stranger and intruder. Why goodbye? Why does he use the trumpet? What is the enigmatic posture suggesting? What does his expression mean?

Actually, the whole book is enigmatic. There are quite a few things unexplained and a bit crazy in the story. No wonder the book has become subjected to much analysis after its publication. Some say the tiger is a metaphor for the Gestapo who robbed and disrupted Kerr’s happy family life and childhood (she was born to Jewish family in the pre-war Germany). Some thinks the tiger symbolises the 1960s sexual revolution (!). Personally I think the tiger is neither. There is nothing menacing about Kerr’s tiger. He is polite and rather handsome with cheeky grin. Kerr reportedly said, “It’s just the story of a tiger who came to tea.” I think the unexplained and enigma is the true secret of the book’s success. It gives you room to create your own interpretations and that’s how a good story should be.

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The Tiger Who Came to Tea was published in 1968 and has never been out of print since. She has sold multi-million copies along with other fantastic books such as Mog series. However, her commercial success isn’t the reason why she was legendary. At least to me, it’s not.

I found comfort in learning Kerr hadn’t taken the typical art-school-graduate-turned-illustrator path. She was trained as a stenographer, worked for the Red Cross, then she was an art teacher, a scriptwriter, a special effect operator and full-time mother. When she wrote her first book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, she was 45.

She was still producing stories and illustrations well into her 90s. That’s something I aspire to. With all her bestselling books, she probably could have lived comfortably without working way beyond retirement age, but she continued. I believe she genuinely loved writing and illustrating for children. Do what you love until you die – isn’t it simply great? Judith Kerr was a legendary picture book maker because she had genuine love for picture books and the love touched several generations of readers. She is gone but her books will live on forever. Rest in peace, Ms Kerr.

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