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.