Judith Kerr dies at 95

News - Children Friday, 24 May 2019

'It has been the greatest honour and privilege to know and publish Judith Kerr' - Ann-Janine Murtagh


Judith Kerr, author of children's classics including The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog series, has died after a short illness. She was 95.

Kerr was never more popular than towards the end of her life, when she enchanted and moved audiences on the festival circuit. Below, we run an updated version Nicolette Jones' article about their frequent appearances together.

Born to a Jewish family in Berlin, Kerr came to Britain in 1933. The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) marked the start of her career as a children's author and illustrator, and she published regularly thereafter; a new book, The Curse of the School Rabbit, is due from HarperCollins next month. She was married to the screenwriter Nigel Kneale, who died in 2006, and leaves a son, Matthew (author of books including English Passengers) and a daughter, Tacy.

Ann-Janine Murtagh, executive publisher at HarperCollins Children's Books, said: "It has been the greatest honour and privilege to know and publish Judith Kerr for over a decade, though of course her history with HarperCollins goes back over 50 years. She came to visit our offices frequently - always bringing her books in person; often arriving on the number 9 bus and leaving us all full of laughter and in awe of her astonishing zest for life and absolute commitment to delivering the very best books for children.

Her incisive wit and dry humour made her both excellent company and a joy to publish. She embraced life as one great big adventure and lived every day to the full. She was absolutely thrilled when I gave her the news that she had been named Illustrator of the Year earlier this month. Her characters and books have delighted generations of children and provided some of the first and fondest reading memories of childhood. My thoughts at this time are with her children, Matthew and Tacy, and her grandchildren."

Charlie Redmayne, HarperCollins CEO, said: "Judith Kerr was a wonderful and inspiring person who was much loved by everyone at HarperCollins. She was a brilliantly talented artist and storyteller who has left us an extraordinary body of work. Always understated and very, very funny, Judith loved life and loved people - and particularly she loved a party. Beautifully dressed and with a smile on her face she would light up the room and would always be one of the last to leave. Time spent in her company was one of life’s great privileges and I am so grateful to have known her."

Nicolette Jones writes
I first chaired an event starring Judith in 2007, when she was only 84, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. We met there several times again, and at some 30 other places.

I had the privilege of interviewing Judith at venues big and small, from Imagine at the South Bank to the Chorleywood Bookshop. We sometimes shared events with other writers and illustrators: talking about life under the Nazis with Tomi Ungerer, as part of the Children's Book Show; discussing how you might approach the horrors of history in books for children with Michael Morpurgo; and celebrating the joys of picturebooks with Lauren Child.

We talked about Mog and the Tiger for fidgety audiences of small children, whom Judith's readings instantly stilled to thumb-sucking silence. We marked Holocaust Memorial Day at the House of Illustration, with a sequence of astonishing works of art on the screen by too-little-known artists who were murdered. We complemented the exhibition of her own life and work housed at the Jewish Museum at Camden. We tried to cram 92 years into 15 minutes, for the Guardian's 5 x 15. We shared adventures from the Bush Theatre to Budleigh Salterton, from Foyles to Lady Margaret Hall.

We observed landmarks in her life and her work. Among these were: the publication of her autobiographical Judith Kerr's Creatures, with its many previously unpublished drawings; the BBC's Imagine documentary about her made by Jill Nicholls; the textile she designed for Liberty's; several new picturebooks; her OBE in 2012; her departure, at the age of 91, into fiction for emerging readers with Mr Cleghorn's Seal; the Sainsbury's ad she appeared in at Christmas 2015 and the bestselling Mog tie-in that raised £1m for Save the Children's literacy appeal.

Every occasion was different. Sometimes there were hitches. There was the time she rummaged for her glasses in her handbag and brought out a hairbrush instead, to the hilarity of the audience, and had to borrow my specs to read aloud. And the day she tripped over (to my shame and stopping heart) my carelessly placed handbag in a Green Room, but bounced back up, apparently quite unshaken. Sometimes I remember circumstantial details: stoical young people steaming in Tiger costumes, whom Judith greeted with great kindness. In Bath, after her event, with characteristic curiosity, she asked her driver to take us to see the Royal Crescent, and the cathedral, where we contemplated the statues on the façade.

The experience was also different each time because, although there was always some familiar ground, Judith invariably came up with unexpected answers. At one event she surprised me in response to a question about her favourite character by saying: "It's a close run thing between Mog and Hitler." Her quick wit and her sharpness took my breath away: they would be great in any interviewee, let alone one in her 90s.

One thing was constant. In every public conversation with Judith Kerr, I was aware of the audience falling in love with her. People tweeted such responses as: "Is it wrong that I wish she was my Granny?" Partly she gave people hope for their own old age: that they would be funny, entertaining, acute, active, independent, up-to-the-minute (she researched on the net, spoke of "selfies", followed the news) and, crucially, still working, into their 90s. Partly it is that she exuded a kind of joie de vivre, and a gratitude for the moment, that made everyone appreciate the now. And partly it was her modesty and charm.

This relates to another important aspect of our events. She spoke of the circumstances she left as a child, when her family's lives were under threat because they were Jewish. She reminded us of an episode of history that must not be forgotten, and embodied so much of value that could have been lost: all the joy of her books and of her person, that we felt an immediate investment in the horror of that threat.

I remember, before I ever had the pleasure of offering up leaden questions for Judith to turn into gold, that I heard her give a speech at an 80th birthday party thrown by her publishers. She spoke of her gratitude to Great Britain for the kindness she and her family had experienced, and her love of the country (the third, as it happens) that took her in. But she also reflected on those who were not so lucky. "I wonder," she said, "what books those who did not survive might have written?" It raised the hairs on the back of my neck. She made her personal experience resonate with something much bigger.

I hope that, over our events together, there were young people in the audiences who will one day, after a lifetime of having understood an important truth about the past, tell their grandchildren that they saw a delightful woman speak about her narrow escape from Nazi Germany. And they will pass on that understanding, and the empathy engendered by having heard Judith Kerr speak. That feels a huge thing to have had any part in.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in 2016 in a Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.

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