Unconventional Mentor no. 33 - Judith Kerr
“You see a lady sitting there and she's not doing anything, and you tend to forget that of course she wasn't always a little old lady. There's all this colored stuff inside her, it's all inside, bubbling.”
I didn’t know Judith Kerr, but I shed a tear when I read about her death earlier this year because I felt that she was part of my extended literary family. The Tiger Who Came to Tea is one of my earliest reading memories. The book always felt really familiar and I loved the simplicity of the adventure in the story. A tiger shows up unannounced, causes complete chaos and then disappears. The family involved, Sophie and her Mum and Dad don’t seem at all bothered and head out for a dinner of sausages and chips as if this was an everyday occurrence. On top of writing great stories, Judith Kerr also seemed like a rather lovely person and whilst she lived a very long and from what I can tell mostly happy life, the world has lost a little bit of positivity with her death. I would have loved to have met her as I think she would have been great fun to know. I remember watching a documentary about her where she demonstrated how she would run up the stairs every day to keep herself fit and active well into her 90s.
Judith Kerr lived a rather remarkable life and was an inspiration of a lady. In the various obituaries and writings praising her life so many people commented on how lovely she was. Funny, upbeat, adventurous and kind. She was in her 40s before she started to write her books and she would continue to write up to her death this year aged 95, with her latest book The Curse of the School Rabbit being published in June this year. I’m am intrigued by people who have taken their time to find the thing they are really good at or who have cultivated lifelong passions, remaining active well into old age. I’ve written before about how lacking in confidence I was until I was in my early thirties, feeling like I am only now discovering who I am and what my potential is. I love reading stories of people who haven’t had success from an early age but have lived rich and fulfilling lives filled with possibility every year that goes by.
“If you've got a life that so many people didn't have, you can't waste it”
The early years of Judith Kerr’s life were not easy. When she was 10 her family had to leave their home in Germany as her father had been outspoken about the Nazi’s and his life was in danger. In 1936 England became her home and it was here that she would meet her husband Nigel and raise her family. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have your whole world turned upside down at such a young age and to live with the fear and uncertainty that war brings. Judith Kerr didn’t seem to let this impact her life, if anything she was all the more grateful for the opportunities she had because she was able to escape Nazi Germany.
“Everything I do is autobiographical. I’m into old ladies because I’ve been one for some considerable time now.”
Judith Kerr was often asked if The Tiger Who Came to Tea was about Hitler and the Nazi’s taking over Germany, but she always said that it was just a story about a tiger. Many of her books drew on the everyday elements of her life, with her various cats inspiring the character of Mog and her later books drawing on her experience of being an older woman. I have to confess that I haven’t read much of Judith Kerr’s later works, but My Henry, which is where the quote I have used comes from and The Great Granny Gang sound like brilliant reads. I have a little nephew who loves his books so I’m sure we will discover some of her later books together.
Looking at it now as an adult I can see so many aspects of The Tiger Who Came to Tea that were familiar to me. I grew up in a household that welcomed unexpected guests to tea without the bat of an eyelid. We always had lodgers from the theatre stay with us, and my gap year summer in San Francisco came about because my mum and dad welcomed a complete stranger into the house who became a lifelong friend. The kitchen in the book looked like my grandparents and the parents in the book could easily have been my Mum and Dad. And at the same time there is so much of Judith Kerr’s work that I haven’t experienced, my childhood home was a safe place, unlike the home of Anna and her family in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
I have taken for granted just how much I am represented in the children’s books I grew up with and that books and reading were a central part of my life. My mum has always been really active with The Ipswich Children’s Book Group and The Federation of Children’s Book Groups and I always had access to books as a child. As a middle-class white girl with two married parents, I could relate to so many of the children’s books that were available to me. A study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that in 2017 only 1% of the 9,000 children’s books published had a BAME character as the main protagonist. Books that have characters with disabilities are also very hard to find and for many children access to books at all is very difficult. Reading can open up a whole world of possibilities for you, so seeing yourself on the pages you are reading is really important and for that to happen we need not only a diverse cast of characters in our books but a diverse group of authors and publishers who can represent all children in the books they write and publish. Judith Kerr wrote really lovely children’s stories, but she also used her writing to talk about the Holocaust and what it means to flee your home due to war, sharing a different perspective with the world. So, while I am sad at her death, I’m so grateful that she was able to tell her stories and I’m excited about reading her new book and discovering some of the other stories I have yet to read.
Mentor advice: Be careful of the judgements you make about people
The advice that I take from Judith Kerr is to be careful about the judgements you make about people. Appearances can be deceptive, and people usually have a lot more going on in their life than the attributes that are visible to us. It is very easy to make judgements about older people in particular and to lump them together into one group. You forget that an ageing, greying body masks the person underneath, who they really are.
A central part of my coaching practice is to be non-judgemental about the situations my clients bring to me. As a coach, this is to help me to ask questions which will help them to gain awareness of their situation, and stops me from imposing my thoughts, and opinions on them. I have found that it has also helped me to be less judgemental in life. I tend to ask people open questions, which are non-judgemental and leave room for people to answer in a way that suits them, rather than asking closed questions which can force my views on other people. Rather than ask someone if they are going to university, I ask what are you going to do after you’re a-levels? I don’t ask people when they are going to move in/get married/have kids with their partner but rather ask them what is exciting in their world at the moment. By being open to the idea that people are so much more than I might judge them to be I am often pleasantly surprised at the things people open up and share with me.
You can find out more about Judith Kerr and her life here and if you have a small person in your life you might want to take them to the Discover Children’s Story Centre where an immersive exhibition of her work is on until September