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Book review: Judith Kerr's Creatures, By Judith Kerr
As she turns 90, let's celebrate the writer who has enriched so many childhoods
Saturday 24 August 2013
Judith Kerr is the illustrator and author of numerous picture books, the most famous of which – The Tiger Who Came to Tea – has sold over five million copies. Her classic autobiography, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was published in 1971 and has been in print ever since. It describes her family's escape from Germany in 1933 via a nail-biting train journey to the Swiss border, after which there were brief sojourns in France and Belgium. Two volumes later saw the family finally settled in Britain by 1937.
Today, aged a youthful 90 and still a great favourite, she tells her story again in this new book, but with more emphasis on her adult life. Generously illustrated by her drawings, illustrations, textile designs and photographs, this is a book for all ages to linger over, richly deserving to become another classic in its own right.
There is more sadness now in the descriptions of how her Jewish-German father Alfred Kerr, formerly a famous literary figure, tried to cope with poverty and near-anonymity once in Britain. New access to archives of his post-Germany letters has revealed all the efforts he continued to make for his family, about which Judith knew nothing for many years. Her mother also had a tough time, in later life making a serious suicide attempt.
But the abiding atmosphere in this book is one of warmth and affection as Judith remembers her happy marriage to the writer Nigel Kneale, her two children and choice details from her publishing life. She owned a series of cats remarkable by any normal standards, and it was inevitable that aspects of these eccentric animals would make their way onto the page. The 17 Mog picture books that resulted, much selected-from for this volume, have always been popular. The last title Goodbye Mog ends in the adored pet's peaceful death.
With her usual skill, Judith makes this come over as gentle but finally acceptable in its inevitability. Constantly amused by the country that gave her shelter but also deeply grateful, she writes and illustrates with a rare grace. Her story of survival and fulfillment is an ultimately joyous account of someone always able to bring out the best in others as well as in herself.
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