Goodbye Judith and Mog…

Judith Kerr, creator of iconic children's book felines (and other characters), has died at the age of 95.

Kerr is undoubtedly best known for The Tiger Who Came to Tea, her first book, published in 1968, and her series of Mog books, the first of which, Mog the Forgetful Cat, came out in 1970.

As a child, Kerr was a refugee who fled Nazi Germany with her German-jewish family. Her father had been openly critical of the Nazis and after the family left the country his books were burned. As well as her picture books Kerr wrote several semi-autobiographical novels for children which dramatised this period of history, inspired to do so by her young son who, upon watching The sound of music, remarked "now we know what it was like when Mummy was a little girl". Apparently unhappy with this state of affairs Kerr penned When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit in response. 

There has been much speculation over the years, that The tiger that came to tea is, in fact, an allegory for the Nazi regime, and though the story is certainly offbeat and ambiguous enough to invite such theorising, Kerr herself went on record as saying otherwise.

Kerr only started writing and illustrating children's books in her forties, and her children and homelife were strong inspirations for her stories, putting paid to the belief that motherhood and writerly pursuits don't mix.

I don't remember reading any Mog books myself as a child but have delighted in discovering them with my own son, and one of the joys of Kerr's books - and what makes them so readable even as an adult - is the "realness" of the settings and characters. Anyone who has ever lived with a cat will instantly recognise the feline idiosyncrasies of Mog. Her skittishness, inability to remember whether she's eaten or not, and her desire to just curl up somewhere cosy and have a nap may not make her the most heroic of picture book characters but she is charming nonetheless. Similarly the adults in the books often display a dry wit, a short temper or other small touches of characterisation that make them seem more real, more human, and more relatable.

Kerr wrote 17 Mog books in total, and I have yet to read Goodbye Mog in which Mog dies. I'm a bit afraid to. I expect I will cry quite a lot. Especially now.

Goodbye, Mog should have been the last of the series however in 2015, at the age of 90, Kerr wrote Mog's Christmas calamity which was only available for purchase from British supermarket chain Sainsbury's as part of a fundraising campaign for Save the Children. A friend in the UK sent us a copy, so we are lucky enough to have this as part of the bedtime story roster in our house. But even if you can't read the book, you should definitely watch the accompanying Sainsbury's TV commercial which is rather more action-packed than the book but is nevertheless a wholesome delight. Kerr herself appears in the commercial, as the neighbour who suggests Mog deserves a medal. In the video below about the making of the commercial, Kerr remarks on how the character of Mog was inspired by her own experience of owning a cat and the surprising cat behaviours she observed.

Though I'm sad to know that Kerr's writing days are now firmly in the past, it's also wonderful to know that though her early life held more than a little uncertainty and peril,  she was able to escape from a tyrannical regime and live a long and productive life. And that she leaves a legacy that will continue to bring joy to others, at bedtime or teatime, uninvited tigers included.

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