It doesn’t get much better than this. The opening night of the Children’s Literature Festival, in association with The Telegraph, sees the return of Gill and John McLay, after a two-year absence, to the helm of the festival they created in 2007. On stage, the guest speaker is Judith Kerr. Author, illustrator, master storyteller, she has given us hungry tigers, pink rabbits, recalcitrant cats and gangs of grannies, amongst many other unforgettable characters. Her latest creation is the tale of Mister Cleghorn’s seal.
The story behind this book is a marvellous one, rooted in Kerr’s memory of sitting astride a stuffed seal that her father kept in his study. The pup had been orphaned during a culling. To avoid its likely death, Kerr’s father took it in. Transporting the small seal from Normandy to Berlin by train he fed it a mixture of milk and cod-liver oil. When that ran out, and the train reached its destination, he caught a taxi to a restaurant to procure some more milk. For a while, the seal lived on the balcony of his apartment, pressing its mournful face against the window-pane. Now on the page it comes to life again in her distinctive line drawings.
Kerr’s own long and varied life provides much of the material that she has worked into more than thirty best-selling books. Drawing on her early childhood in Nazi Germany, married life and motherhood in England, the eccentricities of her father, and the studied observation of her household moggies (“There is no question about who is controlling whom”), she has written and illustrated books that defy classification, appealing to the nine-year-old and the ninety-year-old reader alike.
The delight of the audience is palpable. Laughter sweeps across the crowded room and people vie to ask questions. When her own children were growing up, Kerr says, there was little to ease the transition for the young reader from the shenanigans of Dr Zeuss to the complex machinations of Sherlock Holmes. This is the territory that she has made her own. It all started when she told tales to entertain her daughter. “Talk the tiger,” she was instructed nightly, and so her talent grew.
Her principal urge is to illustrate, and the story soon follows. Long walks allow rumination on plot and character. The best thing about writing the words to accompany your own illustrations, Kerr confides, is that it means you don’t have to draw things that you don’t want to. Her habit, she says, is to look about her, “thinking that the world is a good place”. And it is her consummate ability to translate such optimism and pleasure at life’s vagaries onto the page that continues to guarantee the enormous popularity of her books.
Blog Author: Claudia Pugh-Thomas