Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Tiger Who We All Wish Would Come To Tea With Us, by Pippa Goodhart



Last Saturday I had a treat.  I went to hear Judith Kerr talking about her work in Cambridge Union.  Judith Kerr is a hero of mine for sharing her remarkable child refugee life with us all in her 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' series of books, for her wonderful picture books, and just for being such an inspiring and nice person.  Still publishing picture books now, in her nineties, she's a role model!  But what I wanted to hear about most of all was her first, and I think, her best picture book of them all - The Tiger Who Came To Tea.






Judith and small daughter used to get ‘terribly bored’. So she made up bedtime stories. Judith felt that some of her other stories were at least as good as The Tiger One, but her daughter insisted on that Tiger One more than any other. "Talk the tiger' is what she would demand.  One can imagine how such repeated tellings honed the wording of the story to perfection.

It was only once her daughter, Tacy, and the son who came later, were both at school ‘and staying there for their dinners’ that Judith had time for her own creative work once more, and she began that with the tiger story she knew so well.  That was in 1966.

The prospective publisher liked the story, but questioned ‘how realistic’ it was that the tiger drank from a tap. Anyone with a cat knows that they do drink from taps, certainly more than they knock on front doors! And the glory of that drinking moment is that the Tiger ‘drank all the water in the tap’. I think that's the moment in the story we all remember the most. Incidentally, I couldn’t resist a little homage to that moment in one of my Winnie the Witch stories (written under the fake name of Laura Owen). When Winnie gets a new kitten, much to Wilbur’s annoyance, in a story in ‘Winnie The Bold’, it’s a tiger cub she’s got by mistake, rather than a kitten. That tiger causes havoc, eating everything in the larder and the fridge, and then, of course, drinking all the water in the tap. I’m so glad that Judith held strong and kept that tap-drinking!

 

The other problem perceived by the publishers was with one aspect of Judith’s artwork. ‘And they were quite right,’ said Judith. She had modelled the father figure on her husband, but he looked very different in different spreads. So she tried to get him to sit for her properly so that she could get the images right, but he was too busy … so she used an out of work actor friend instead, and, she says, that you can see that Daddy is distinctly ‘different’ on different pages. I’d never noticed that, but now I've gone back to look, I do see it!

 Michael Rosen has a theory that the tiger knocking at the door, then coming in and helping itself to everything, represents the Gestapo who were doing their worst in the Germany that the Kerr family fled as the Nazis came to full power. But Judith Kerr says that’s quite wrong. The story grew the way it did because she and her daughter got bored with just each other for company whilst ‘Daddy’ was at work. They used to long for somebody to come and visit, and so that’s why the story grew out of a visitor coming to tea. Why a tiger? Simply because they had been to the zoo together, and both fallen in love with the tiger they saw there. She says they hadn’t at all contemplated how dangerous a tiger might be; just that they were so very beautiful, and they made you want to stroke that wonderful orange fur. So to have a tiger visiting, and letting you lean against its orange fur strength and warmth wasn’t a scary prospect at all. It was wonderful. I doubt any read it as a scary story. And, besides, the tiger is so very polite, he’s not at all a nasty intruder!







But that’s one of the beauties of stories, and especially those which are simply told. They leave room for you to bring your own interpretation to them. They become your story, individual to each one of us because we each ‘read’ and complete the story in our own unique way.

13 comments:

  1. What a wondeful post Pippa, and how lucky you are to have met Judith Kerr. I adore her work....but for all my children, it was The Tiger who came to tea which was an absoute favourite.They always wanted that one..happy days, and I still our battered copy of the book in my bedroom.

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  2. Thank you, Bridget! Yes, it's one of those books that just WORKS wonderfully, and you can't quite work out why. I think there's something special about the very matter of fact way in which it's told ... and yet we know that what's happening is extraordinary.

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  3. Yes, I think it is the matter of fact way the story is told that makes it so special - and also that they went out to tea. It just seems such a treaty thing to do on a Winter school night evening. Great post.

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    1. Exactly, and, even better, Sophie gets to go to the café in her nightie!

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  4. I adore hearing 'behind the scenes' tales about books. Thanks, Pippa. It makes me laugh that the publisher queried the tiger drinking from a tap, rather than all the other things. Perhaps to the publisher it was a story about a cat, but wildly exaggerated? It's always intriguing how others interpret stories. I have a picture book that is used widely in churches because the interpretation has been taken beyond my original intention. I think that's fine because if we share our writing with the world then we are no longer in control and others can interpret it how they want, though I always enjoy hearing the original intentions of the author.

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    1. You're right. Stories, once they're 'out there', belong to everyone and become personal to everyone. Judith wasn't in the least bit possessive about her story; just amused that others saw it differently.

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  5. Thanks Pippa. There was a wonderful Judith Kerr exhibition at Seven Stories, with a giant cuddly tiger and some of the original sketches from Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit. I love her work :) Have you seen her new 'The Crocodile under the Bed?'

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    1. I haven't seen it yet but must look out for it. I gather that she has yet another new book coming out later this year. She's amazing!

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  6. I like Michael Rosen's idea though. There is always a subconscious element at work, in any story.

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    1. It's certainly interesting. Happily Judith told us that she didn't ever see the Nazis at work in that way. Her father, a well known journalist critical of the regime, was named on a hit list quite early on, and so they got out relatively early.

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  7. This story comes from a child's point of view so beautifully, perhaps because Judith Kerr's world at the time was the world of the child she was caring for. I don't see the tiger as threatening at all by the way. To me it's a symbol of the imagination made real - the infinite possibilities in the world if it is looked at with the mind of a child.

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  8. Some picture books simply are unforgettable, and it's hard to say exactly why. No, I never saw the tiger as a Nazi - he was much too beautiful and strokeable and ALIEN - anathema for Nazis! He's a very gentle anarchist, I think - breaking all the rules because, well, he's just a big cat, and that's what he does.

    Now will someone please tell me who wrote: "Nicholas Bunny", so beloved of my son when he was little that we bought him a cuddly rabbit toy holding a carrot.

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  9. I didn't say the tiger is a nazi. I don't think images in art work like that. All that I ever said was that all of us incorporate things from our pasts into our work, without always knowing that we do. Some of Judith's work has a sense of danger and menace in it. Not a lot. But occasionally. All of us can draw on this sense of danger and menace if we experienced anything like that. We don't always know that we are doing this. There were elements of danger in Judith's childhood. that's all I've ever said. I don't mind defending what I do say. Having to defend things that I didn't say is really quite hard.

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