The Child in Judith Kerr

The legendary creator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog and now My Henry, on her unique childhood as an exile and book fan

What kind of child were you?

My mother used to say I was “The cat who walked by itself”, having read Kipling. I think I was a rather old child; I really liked talking to grown-ups. I was very happy – I did all the things like drawing, going to parties, hopping about and standing on my head. 
What are your most vivid memories from childhood? 
When we lived in Switzerland [after escaping Nazi Germany], girls used to link arms and walk along in a long row of eight or nine. One day, I found myself in one of these rows and we happened to run into my mother as we walked along the street, and I remember thinking, “Oh good, she’ll be so pleased, I’m behaving just like a child!” I was nine when we left Berlin; I was ten when we went to France. I don’t think I grew up any faster than other children because of that – I really grew up once we came to England, when I was nearly 13. Life became much harder for my parents; we lived in a kind of very cheap hotel. We’d been very much protected before that. 
As a child, how did you start reading and which books have stayed with you?
Learning to read in German is very easy because it’s totally phonetic. I believe I could read when I was three. I asked my mother constantly, or anyone I happened to be with, “What does that say?” I’d look at advertisements on the bus, anything, And then I found I could read. In Germany, but they were nearly all translations from the English – though I didn’t realise it at the time; the Germans weren’t very good at children’s fiction. I read endless fairytales – Anderson and Grimm – and my mother also had translations of [Andrew Lang’s] coloured books of fairytales. I loved Tom Sawyer in translation. I read Heidi and various other books by Johanna Spyri, which actually terrified me because they were always full of children who died who were always very good. I thought I was probably safe but I wasn’t absolutely sure – somebody might mistake me for being too good and God would take me.
Why did you decide to draw on your childhood for the autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – which is 40 years old this year?
I really wanted to tell my children what it was like when I was a child, because if bringing up children is something you’ve never done before, you tend to think, “What did I do when I was little?” And of course it’s always quite different. I also wanted to remember my parents, who had died by then. In writing picture books, I drew vastly on my experience with my own children. I knew what would make them laugh and I used to make up stories – The Tiger Who Came to Tea was one I made up for Tacy, my daughter. With Mog, I’d always wanted a cat and we [as a family] could never have one, so when we [with her husband] got this house with a garden we got a kitten, Mog. The first Mog book was purely about the things the cat did and the things the children imagined it did – so the cat was asleep and twitching, and one of the children said, “I bet she dreams that she’s flying.” 
How did you read with your children and were their tastes the same as yours?
It was quite hard to find stuff to read to them when they were little. One reason I did The Tiger Who Came to Tea was because I was so fed with what there was 50 years ago. There was nothing much between “This is a dog, this is a cow,” that kind of book, and these books with complicated language – the theory about children’s first books then was that they should be full of new words to increase their vocabulary, so one was endlessly translating. I realized, reading to my daughter, that even a two-year-old is totally emotionally mature. They understand fear, love, hate and crossness, but there were no stories for them. It can be terribly simple: ‘Once there was a little dog, and he was very cross.’ My son refused to have anything to do with Janet and John and all that awful stuff. He said, “I cannot read these books any more, they are too boring… I’m going to learn to read with The Cat in the Hat.” So I was very much influenced by Dr Seuss; the Mog stories were learning-to-read books like them. I thought he was absolutely marvelous.
My Henry by Judith Kerr is out now, published by HarperCollins Children's Books.