Just when you think that children's books are getting better than ever, something like this comes along: Judith Kerr's Creatures: A Celebration of Her Life and Work. The book is published on Thursday to mark the 90th birthday of the beloved children's writer and illustrator, and it contains 176 large, beautiful pages of nostalgia for anyone who has been a child in the past half century.
The book is a form of autobiography, in which Kerr's drawings from all ages illustrate her life story. It begins with a story about drawing a tulip in her German kindergarten and a sketch of a typical family outside a typical house. But it is not a typical sketch: the little girl, "Ich", appears to be lighting a bonfire and the little boy has found a bunny rabbit under a holly bush. "I can't remember a time when I didn't want to draw," she writes.
Kerr was nine years old in 1933, when she had to flee Germany with her parents and brother because her father, a journalist, had criticised the Nazis. She later told the story in three novels, collectively titled "Out of the Hitler Time", the most famous of which is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In the story, the little girl, Anna, is forced to leave behind all of her toys. When her big brother grumbles that Hitler is probably playing with their Snakes and Ladders, Anna replies: "And snuggling my Pink Rabbit!"
This new book is a factual account of the author's life from that time on, and as such it fills in the historical details that the young Judith/Anna couldn't have known. The drawings from this period, which were fortunately saved by her mother, are of Dutch dancers, French market stalls, beaches, and angels. "Through all this," Kerr writes, "my parents managed to make my brother and me feel that it was all a great adventure … I'm told I said 'Isn't it lovely being a refugee!'"
After moving to England when she was 12, Kerr studied at the Central School of Art. She married Nigel Kneale in 1954. Her first published picture book for children, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, was written in 1968 for her children Matthew and Tacy, who found all their other children's books "boring". She told The Independent on Sunday in 2009: "I realised, having learnt to read in German, which is dead easy because it's all phonetic, that these poor creatures were having to learn this awful, awful language to read. I mean it's a wonderful language. But very hard to learn. [The Mog books] were very much inspired by Dr Seuss in that I used as few words as possible, used them again and again and made it funny." The Tiger Who Came to Tea has sold nearly five million copies and been made into a successful stage show.
Her other books include Mog the Forgetful Cat (and 15 other Mog titles), The Great Granny Gang, When Willy Went to the Wedding and One Night in the Zoo.
In Judith Kerr's house there is a bookcase containing works by members of her immediate family: her father Alfred Kerr was a German drama critic and journalist whose books were burned by the Nazis; her late husband Nigel Kneale wrote Quatermass; and her son Matthew Kneale won the Whitbread Prize for his 2000 novel English Passengers. Her daughter Tacy worked on the special effects for the Harry Potter films.
Judith Kerr's Creatures is published on 6 June by HarperCollins Children's Books, £25