Beloved children’s author known for Mog and The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Born: June 14, 1923;

Died: May 22, 2019

JUDITH Kerr, who has died aged 95, was an author and illustrator who created some of the best loved children’s picture books of the 20th century, including the Mog stories and The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

Kerr (pronounced “Karr”) sold more than nine million books and her works have been translated into 25 languages. Her beguiling illustrations and stories, imbued with surrealism, are part of the mental landscape of successive generations of children.

But she also lived an extraordinary life in her early years and became one of the most important chroniclers of the Jewish refugee experience to put pen to paper, having fled Nazi Germany with her parents and brother in 1933.

READ MORE: Tiger Who Came To Tea author Judith Kerr dies aged 95

In three novelised accounts of her early life – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), Bombs on Aunt Dainty (1975), and A Small Person Far Away (1978) – she detailed how the rise of the Nazis made a marked man of her father, Alfred, a famous socialist theatre critic and writer. A telephone tip-off from a policeman he had never met allowed the family to escape just 48 hours before their passports were to be seized. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit won the German Young Literature Prize in 1974.

Her book Judith Kerr’s Creatures (2013), featuring her childhood pictures and other artwork from her life, was dedicated to “the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted”.

In spite of the shadow cast by those early experiences, Kerr’s was a happy life – even, as she would often comment, her peripatetic childhood. The family arrived in London in March 1936, having fled first to Zurich, then Paris. Eleven different schools, and then war and the Blitz, meant she had not enjoyed much stability in her teenage years, but that changed after the war and particularly with her marriage to scriptwriter Nigel (Tom) Kneale, creator of the acclaimed 1950s TV science-fiction serial Quartermass. They were married for 52 years, until his death in 2006, and lived in the same house in Barnes, south London, for more than half a century. There, they brought up their two children, Matthew, a writer who won the 2000 Whitbread book award for his novel English Passengers, and Tacy, an artist.

Kerr bought a cat as soon as she had a house with a garden, having always wanted one as a child. Thus began a succession of feline companions, each individual’s quirks of behaviour contributing something new to the 17-strong Mog series.

Judith Kerr was born in Berlin in summer 1923, when her father was 56 and her mother Julia, a pianist and composer, was 25. The couple already had a three-year-old son, Michael.

The Berlin of the Weimar Republic was one of political turmoil, violence and economic hardship, but it was also famously liberal and culturally avant garde; Jews at the time enjoyed greater freedoms than they had in the past, and Alfred, a friend of Einstein and George Bernard Shaw, was a respected critic who used his wit to send up the Nazis.

He left Germany first, and then Julia followed him to Zurich 10 days later with Judith, nine, and Michael, 12, leaving on March 4, the day before the elections that swept the Nazis to power.

From Switzerland, where newspapers declined to publish Alfred’s writings for fear of upsetting their Nazi neighbours, the family travelled to Paris, where they remained for three years until coming to London in 1936 after Alfred sold a script to his friend, the filmmaker Alexander Korda.

Kerr recalled that her parents managed to make the children feel that it was all “a great adventure”. In fact, they struggled to make ends meet in London where Kerr had no profile. Julia had to do secretarial jobs she hated. Charitable strangers paid for Judith to attend boarding school, but she left at 16. The family lived in a residential hotel in Bloomsbury, until it was bombed.

After the war, Alfred received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Germany, but had a major stroke during a visit to Hamburg in 1948, aged 81, leaving him incapacitated. He asked his wife to help him commit suicide, by taking pills, and she agreed. Kerr never doubted that her beloved father had made the right decision for himself. In her later years, she was an advocate of legalising assisted suicide in the UK.

Judith worked for the Red Cross during the war and in 1945, won a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts. For a few years, she found work as an artist, decorating nurseries, designing textiles and selling occasional paintings. She was teaching in a technical college when she happened to pop into the BBC canteen for lunch - and met her future husband. Encouraged by him, she started working as a TV scriptwriter for the BBC.

After marrying, she took a break from work to bring up her children, but was encouraged to put to pen to paper in frustration at the books available for young children to read in English, which from her multilingual perspective was a very difficult language to learn. The result was The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968). An instant success, it has sold 5m copies.

The former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger could be seen as a threatening figure, robbing a happy, trusting family of their very sustenance. To Kerr, consciously at least, he was always just a tiger. She made up the story one day for her daughter Tacy, who was then nearly three, because they’d been to the zoo and their favourite animal had been the tiger.

Kerr wrote and drew well into her 90s, her work intensifying after Kneale’s death, and she never lost her sense of humour. It was evident in every interview she gave. Typical was her remark to a Guardian interviewer when she was 92 about forgetting her words. She wryly observed that it was frustrating, but then again “even the young people in their 80s have this problem”. That gentle Kerr wit lives on in more than 30 published works.

Judith Kerr is survived by her children and grandchildren.