Judith Kerr: ‘If I can’t be sentimental at my age, when will I start?’

Judith Kerr: ‘If I can’t be sentimental at my age, when will I start?’

In one of her last interviews before her death on Thursday, the celebrated author and illustrator, whose family fled the Nazis, talks books and antisemitism – over tea, of course.

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

It has taken 48 years, but Judith Kerr has finally given us another rabbit – and it isn’t pink. The Curse of the School Rabbit is Judith’s first encounter with a herbivore since her semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was published in 1971. 

There have been many books in-between and The Tiger Who Came To Tea circa 1968 is still beloved by each new generation. But the latest arrival, which would have coincided with the late author’s 96th birthday, is an exquisitely illustrated funny picture book about a boy, a rabbit, and a lot of bad luck. 

“I think there should be as few words in a picture book as possible,” says Judith, just weeks before her passing, over coffee and biscuits in the front room at her ivy-clad Victorian house in Barnes. 

Judith, who was charming and blessed with energy that belied her years, was nursing a nasty scratch courtesy of her cat – Katinka who has her own book Katinka’s Tail.  The drawings are the joy in Judith’s books for that is the natural talent of this former Central School of Art student. “I never had money or the right clothes and remember my mother and brother getting quite worried about me.”

But there had been more worrying times when they lived in Berlin and her father Alfred, a theatre reviewer and open critic of the Nazis was on the list of most wanted Jews and his books were burnt after the family fled to England when Judith was 12. It is that part of her life that features in her trilogy, Out of the Hitler Time of which ‘Pink Rabbit’ is part.

Judith Kerr’s famous work, The Tiger Who Came To Tea

“I would never have written a novel if it hadn’t been about my family,” admits Judith who credits late husband Thomas Nigel Kneale, creator of TV’s Quatermass for getting her through. 

“I became a script writer after his success and he fixed anything I messed up. I found the novel incredibly difficult and after three or four chapters was ready to give up. But Tom said I shouldn’t and gave me the title. I was coming up with awful things, but the publishers said that When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit wasn’t the kind of title they used. Originally I hadn’t put pink rabbit in, but Tom remembered and said I should.”

Evidently the toy rabbit Judith left behind was barely pink. “It was very faded,” she says shaking her head. “I suppose it was like an old friend, but in the end I took another toy that was totally uninteresting.” 

Judith admits to being sentimental – “If not at the age of 95 when will I start?” she says knowing soft toys trigger nostalgia. “Matthew had a monkey that went everywhere with him,” she says of her first born who is an award-winning novelist living in Rome, but could not recall the favourite toy of her artist/designer daughter, Tacy.

Jewish News’ Brigit Grant with the late great Judith Kerr.

“I had no idea what to do at first with my own children as there had been no small children in my family. But I did learn it was much easier to get kids to do things when you make them laugh.” The synopsis on the back cover of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit begins with the line: ‘Suppose your country began to change’ and I ask Judith if she feels it reflects the recent rise of antisemitism in Britain. 

“I can’t recall who said it, but antisemitism is in the soil, it’s always been there and I don’t really know why,” she muses. “I remember a romantic novel my mother once read that described a regular street scene with nothing particular going on and it said ‘a bus was coming and on the other side of the road and a fat Jew was coming along’. No one complained about it.

“I also recall staying with a friend from art school whose father spoke negatively about the ‘chosen people’ until she told him I was Jewish and to shut up. It was part of the language, it wasn’t even being mean. I’m amazed how much thoughtless stuff there was, but I’ve never experienced antisemitism in this country. 

Though her meetings with young readers have grown fewer, Judith thinks children are much the same,even with the distractions of technology. “Learning to read is not like it was when Matthew was young and there were Janet and John books. One day he told me he could not read those books any more and would only learn from Dr Seuss.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a first reader for many young children and The Curse of The School Rabbit could be a new contender.

“Picture books are still popular and that gets them started, so I think they should be funny,” says Judith, who won the Oldie Tigress We’d Like
to Have Tea Award
in January. Having coffee with her was just as good.

Her passing leaves a huge hole in the hearts of millions.

The Curse of the School Rabbit is published by Harper Collins on 17 June

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