The Tiger Who Came To Tea : Judith Kerr

The Tiger Who Came to TeaThe Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kerr was the first author to genuinely, utterly terrify me. There are moments in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit that brought home the impact of war to me like no other. She is rich and warm with her writing and yet unafraid to inject anarchy and darkness. She is one of the grand dames of children’s literature and I love her lots. (And I would also like a reality show where she and Shirley Hughes and KM Peyton sit and talk shop with each other and occasionally eat cake.)

The Tiger Who Came To Tea is eloquent and mischievious and, underneath it all, a poignant tribute to childhood and the roar of an unfed stomach. It’s hard to not read a little bit of Kerr’s background into this book, her life as refugee, as immigrant to London, and as mother.

The story itself is very simple. A tiger comes to tea. The tiger eats everything and then leaves. Daddy comes home and as there’s nothing left for him to eat, he takes Sophie and Mummy out for tea. And whilst they’re out, they make sure to buy a big tin of Tiger food.

The tiger himself is a beautiful creation. Somehow Kerr manages to inject a courtly, gentlemanlike air into her creation; the bold orange and black lines curving politely into place whilst Sophie, in bright excitement, rests her hair against his fur. But this isn’t the sole joy of Kerr’s tiger: his eyes, oh his eyes. There’s an edge to him and it’s conveyed in his eyes, the way he surveys the room looking for more food and drink.

I also love how this book demonstrates another aspect of the role a picture book can play. Kerr’s artwork, beat-like against the white space of the page, is incredibly evocative of the city and the way we lived in the city at that time. The shops nestled brightly against each other and glowing in the lamp light, the kettle balancing on the rings and the way the grovery boy bikes down the road with his basket of goods on the front. This is picture books acting as archive, as history and as cultural repository. The way Daddy wears his hat. The way the milkman has his blue overcoat and the open sided van. It’s lovely, and I think this aspect of picture books is something that can easily be forgotten.

The final thing to note of this book is Kerr’s precise and beautiful prose. She’s so simple and so confident in her writing that you can’t help but wonder when the Tiger will come to tea at your house. Every sentence is laden with a sort of stunning conviction. Of course there’s not enough food in your house to feed the tiger (and will he end up eating you?) The way she teases us, always, with that danger and then gives us the satisfying ending – a full stomach both metaphorically and textually – is nothing short of perfection.

I love you Judith Kerr, I really do.

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7 thoughts on “The Tiger Who Came To Tea : Judith Kerr

  1. It’s lovely to read a review from another Judith Kerr fan! I first came to her through When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – in fact I never knew her picture books till I had my daughter. Her fictional autobiography made a big impression on me when we had it as a class novel in Canada before I moved to the UK and I felt for her when she revealed her sense of loss for her pink rabbit.
    The Tiger Who Came to Tea is such a unique book isn’t it? You’ve written so well on how it stands on its own in the ranks of children’s books. I love the simplicity of the text and images and how, behind this, there are so many layers.
    Have you reached the psychoanalysis part of your MA yet? This book features in that. We were asked to do a Freudian or Jungian interpretation and the Freudian versions I saw horrified me! I like this book as it is. πŸ™‚

  2. I’m not sure whether I “read” The Tiger Who Came To Tea or Mog the Forgetful Cat first but both were read to me as a toddler and I’ve since had the joy of sharing them with my niece. Well all except that one Mog book which I prefer to pretend does not exist. I’m sure you know the one I mean.

    Anyway Tiger is wonderful for sharing with a small person initially there is the genuine concern from them that the Tiger will forget his manners and do what tigers do. The illustrations are something a current small child can relate to but as you say they also capture a moment in history.

    Pink Rabbit is wonderful and so evocative but so very sad. I was 11 when I read it and I can still remember my grief when I realised that this wasn’t fiction and Pink Rabbit really was lost forever.

  3. picture books acting as archive, as history and as cultural repository
    It’s hard to imagine Kerr’s classic picture books having the same resonances for our grandkids, nearly or already at two removes from the generation for whom milk floats, grocery boys and maybe even non-electric kettles were the everyday norm.

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it. There are elements in them that I find very much ‘historical’ and I wonder how they’ll translate for, as you say, several generations removed. I think that’s actually a massive question for picture books in general – how do they, and how will they shift over time (and how their reading too will shift and change and transmute). Thank you for provoking my thought πŸ™‚

      • You’re welcome!

        I think they’ll probably provoke very different and individual responses, the same as, say, an Arthur Rackham illustration would not speak to me in the same way as it would to a contemporary of his.

        My guess is they will feel quaint and ‘olde worlde’ — for many, many people (adults included) anything before their earliest personal memories is often Ancient History as far as their chronological sensibilities are concerned. (There speaks the jaundiced ex-schoolteacher of history and other subjects…)

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