October 24th, 2011

This IS me (by schwitters)Default

Out Of The Hitler Time

When I had to clear my childhood possessions from my parents' house, I hung on to three picture books. Two of them were by the same author:

The Tiger Who Came To Tea Mog the Forgetful Cat

(The third was Dogger, by Shirley Hughes.)

Later I discovered When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a largely autobiographical account of a girl and her family who are forced to leave Germany in 1933 and make a home in first Switzerland, then France, then England. It's sad and scary in places, but mostly it's funny and exciting, and it remains one of my favourite books and comfort reads.

When I learned that Judith Kerr, the author of all these wonderful books, was appearing at the Word Up! children's literary festival in Dulwich, in conversation with Penelope Lively, I snapped up a ticket.

At Alleyn's School I found lots of kids running around in their Joules and Mini Boden. There were child-specific activities, talks aimed at the whole family, plus food, book and clothing stalls. Even so, I was surprised to see so many children in Judith Kerr's talk. The ones who clearly weren't all that interested still behaved very well, and most of them were paying rapt attention.

Judith started writing about her childhood so her own children could see how different it was from theirs.

When she was ten her family suddenly left Berlin for Switzerland, just before the election that would bring Hitler to power. She later learned that her father's name was second on the list of people the Nazis planned to do away with, and the morning after the family left home the police came for their passports. Yet her parents managed to hide most of the danger from their children and keep them safe and happy.

The other main topic of conversation was cats. Judith Kerr is clearly cat-mad, but wasn't able to have one of her own until she was married and settled in England. Fascinated by all the weird, daft things her new pet got up to, she turned them into a series of picture books.

Contrary to my expectations, nobody stood up and denounced The Book We Do Not Name. But the real Mog lived to be nineteen and Judith is currently on cat number nine, Katinka, white with a tabby tail ("She looks as if her tail got mixed up with another cat's when they were kittens").

There were more questions at the end from children than adults, ranging from 'Did writing When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit make you very emotional?' to 'Why do you like tigers so much?' When asked about the German translation of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, she said it's popular as a children's introduction to the events of the 1930s because nothing really dreadful happened to her family: "I'm not Anne Frank."

Before we got up to leave, a representative of the National Literacy Trust came onstage and told us that in Britain, one child in three doesn't own (or doesn't perceive themselves as owning) a single book. I gave them some money as soon as I got home. You can too.

Judith was signing books afterwards. In the queue, I spotted several battered and beloved childhood copies like mine alongside the new purchases. She signed all three of my books for me, exclaiming over the good condition of my 30-year-old Armada Lion paperbacks. More importantly, I got the chance to tell her how much I loved her writing and how I keep Pink Rabbit by my bed.

Word of God: Despite the many interpretations applied to it, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is actually just about a tiger coming to tea. It's not about the Gestapo. Not even subconsciously. "The important thing about the tiger is he's big, orange and stripy."