Among reasons to be cheerful, the life and work of Judith Kerr must rank very highly. Successive generations of small children have been delighted by, among other things, her creation Mog: a cat whose very humanity is perfectly expressed by her feline behaviour. Mog is by turns affectionate, exasperating, cowardly, irrational, loyal and playful – and is adored by everyone in her family. As both author and illustrator, Judith Kerr brought to the Mog picture books a lightness of touch and a wry sense of humour that appeal to adults as well as children.
But the security and stability of Mog’s household are deceptive. Judith Kerr’s own childhood was disrupted by her family’s flight from the rise of Nazism in Germany in 1933. They lived in Switzerland and in France before finally settling in Britain. Yet Judith seems to have thrived on this, and has acknowledged that her parents were able to make her and her brother feel that this was a big adventure.
The unselfconscious potential for anarchy that children bring to their surroundings characterises much of her writing for children, and nowhere more so than in The Tiger Who Came to Tea. What is so satisfying about it is that it follows through to its logical conclusion the surreal disruption that entertaining tiger in the average household would entail, but the humour is all the sharper for the depredations of this ravening — yet charming — beast being received with immaculate sangfroid by Sophie and her mother.
In Goodbye Mog, she tackles the ultimate taboo: the death of both a beloved character and — in the context of the book itself, a family pet. While the book does not try to hide the grief that all the family members feel (yes, even Dad), it focuses on continuity, in the form of the new rescue kitten whom Mog, in spirit form, helps to adjust to loud children and rustly newspapers. Her work done, Mog withdraws.
Judith Kerr was been exactly the kind of immigrant the Government says it wants. Having arrived here as refugee, she went on to work for the Red Cross during the war, and subsequently for the BBC as a scriptwriter. She also became a naturalised citizen. She certainly enriched British life with her writing and illustration, and received the OBE in 2012 — but why wasn’t she made a dame?