The enduring appeal of The Tiger Who Came to Tea

© 2019 by Tim Warnes

© 2019 by Tim Warnes

I hadn’t planned to become an author. I just thought I’d try to do a picture book.
— Judith Kerr (Desert Island Discs, 2004)

Last week saw the passing of a legend in children’s books - Judith Kerr. Appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for services to children's literature and Holocaust education, the Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. In 2019 she was named Illustrator of the Year at the British Book Awards - just a week before her death.

Judith Kerr bore an uncanny resemblance to my Nan Warnes. And if you’re the type to worry about getting old, just read or watch an interview with her. They will be sure to allay your fears.

Because Kerr exuded joy. Self-deprecating, humble and witty, she worked up in her attic studio every day; giving her a sense of purpose, meaning and motivation. Kerr’s life was an example of what the Japanese refer to as ikigai - living life to the full and finding happiness in the everyday. Right up to her (final) 95th year. Her latest (and last) book, The Curse of the School Rabbit (HarperCollins 2019) will be published posthumously in June.

Kerr’s first book was originally a bedtime story, made up for her young daughter, Tacy:

“I first told this story to my small daughter long ago. She was rather critical of my other stories but used to say, 'Talk the tiger!' So, when she and her brother were both at school and I had more time, I thought I would make it into a picture book – and much to my amazement, here it still is 50 years later.”

- The Tiger Who Came To Tea: author Judith Kerr discusses 50 years of classic books

In celebration of Judith Kerr - let’s talk the tiger!

from The Tiger Who Came to Tea © 1968 by Judith Kerr

from The Tiger Who Came to Tea © 1968 by Judith Kerr

The Tiger Who Came to Tea was first published in 1968 when Judith Kerr was aged 45.

Let’s stop right there.

Judith Kerr was 45 years old when her first book was published.

(For me, that’s a considerable encouragement, as I’m only a little older myself. It reminds me of the potential impact the cumulative effect of my work might have on generations of kids to come.)

And since then, The Tiger Who Came to Tea has remained in print, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kerr’s depiction of a typical 1960’s household looks quite old fashioned and quaint now, with its stay-at-home Mummy waiting for Daddy to come back from work. (Contrast this with, for example, the chaotic and modern families in Lauren Child's books, where mum and dad are both out working - in fact, Charlie and Lola’s parents are never seen, and appear to be barely present.)

Kerr shows the milkman and his float; the grocer’s boy making home deliveries by bicycle; the Formica kitchen with its enamelled oven and stovetop kettle. They all hearken back to the past.

And at the end of the book - after the tiger has eaten them out of house and home and departed - Sophie’s family go out for supper. Not 2019 noodles; a cheeky tofu salad with heritage vegetables; or a gourmet burger in a lightly toasted brioche bun (served with heritage tomato relish and sweet potato fries). But to an old school café for ‘sausages and chips and ice cream.’

I like the way tiger has dated. But it’s not only Kerr’s illustration - the story itself hearkens back to a publishing industry of yesteryear.

Because honestly, I think you would be hard pushed to get anyone to publish Tiger today. Not that it’s unworthy of publication - if that were true it would not have endured and become a classic. But because it has such a simple storyline. There is no hook; no dramatic climatic moment of threat. Her tiger arrives, eats and drinks his fill, then leaves.

He doesn’t frighten anyone.

Nobody gets lost (or eaten).

The worst that happens - Daddy’s left with no supper.

Perhaps the book’s simplicity is the secret of its enduring appeal?

There’s nothing extraneous - as Kerr frequently explained:

“… I thought that children shouldn't be made to read anything unnecessary. And so I would never put anything in the text that was in the pictures. You know, if you say ‘he was wearing red trousers’, and you see a boy with red trousers… it's a waste of [the child reader’s] energy. I didn't want them to have to do that. So, I try to use as few words as possible, as well as possible.”

- Kerr speaking on Desert Island Discs

For example, the text reads -

So Sophie’s mummy said, “Would you like a drink?” And the tiger drank all the milk in the milk jug and all the tea in the teapot.

It’s Kerr’s art that fills in the detail. Look how relaxed the tiger is - emptying out the teapot by leaning back in a most casual manner, holding it high and pouring the tea down his throat. He’s relishing every drop! The milk jug, meanwhile, lies on its side on the table.

(I write more about the role of illustration in storytelling here.)

from The Tiger Who Came to Tea © 1968 by Judith Kerr

from The Tiger Who Came to Tea © 1968 by Judith Kerr

On illustrating the tiger, Kerr remarked in 2008 (in a typically self-deprecating way):

“I should be able to draw tigers, but I can’t… it's not really a tiger at all. Quentin Blake would have made it much funnier and Michael Foreman would have drawn it better.”

- Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright

I love her tiger, with his slightly sneaky eyes and big Muppet-esque paws!

Former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen commented on Tiger:

“Judith has created a totally feasible unfeasible experience, the juxtaposition of two realities in a way that would be impossible in our world. The result is both very funny and slightly unsettling.”

- Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright

This ambiguity poses questions for the young reader -

  • Where has the tiger come from?

  • Why is it so friendly?

  • Does anyone own it?

  • Where does it go next?

  • Why didn’t it ever return?

Theories abound as to the deeper meaning behind the unexpected visitor - all refuted by Kerr - including this, from her annotated copy of Tiger:

“The excellent Michael Rosen thinks that I subconsciously based the tiger on my fears of the Gestapo, but I don’t think one would snuggle the Gestapo - even subconsciously.”

Time after time, Kerr has insisted - it’s about a tiger who wants some tea.

I guess there is an underlying frisson of danger in the very fact that this is a (believable looking) tiger who comes to tea. king of the sly, sideways glance - what exactly is he thinking?

But there’s no denying Kerr’s claim. These are not threatening scenes. (Besides, she covered her experiences as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.)

  • There’s Mummy and Sophie taking tea with the tiger, all smiles;

  • There’s Sophie, tickling the tiger under the chin;

  • Now she’s rubbing her cheek into his tail, using the fluffy tip to tickle under her own chin.

from The Tiger Who Came to Tea © 1968 by Judith Kerr

from The Tiger Who Came to Tea © 1968 by Judith Kerr

I especially love this last image! It shows such tenderness - and Sophie’s deep longing to snuggle into the soft tiger, who, in typical feline fashion, ignores Sophie to drink ‘all the water in the tap’ -

a scene derided by her publisher as “rather unrealistic”, which Kerr thought “was odd in view of the rest of the story.”

Fifty years after her tiger came to tea, Judith Kerr lets loose a crocodile – Interview published in The Independent

Odd indeed - considering Kerr’s tiger swigs from the teapot, drinks from a glass through a straw, and plays a toy trumpet elsewhere in the book! In fact, looking at it again, I’d say the scene of the beloved tiger drinking from the tap is probably the most believable and naturalistic. Publishers, eh?

As the years passed, thoughts about her own mortality inspired Kerr to write the story Goodbye Mog in which the beloved cat (star of seventeen picture books) dies.

“... it wasn't so much that I wanted to kill her off, as that I wanted to say something about dying and being remembered.”

Why Mog Had To Die

I’m inspired by Kerr’s example, who embraced mortality and continued to write and illustrate until the end of her life. There’s no doubt that her work will be around for many years to come, continuing her legacy. Once something is so ingrained in the public consciousness (as are so many of her books) they start to take on a deeper meaning, becoming firmly rooted and entwined into a family’s history. My generation - the kids who grew up on Tiger and Mog in the ‘70s - now have children who have entered adulthood. Kerr’s stories are being handed down to a new generation.

She’d be delighted to know that her wish is being honoured -

“Remember me. But do get on with your lives.”

Why Mog Had To Die


Judith Kerr OBE

1923 - 2019


Good to read

Picture books featuring unexpected visitors:

  • A Bedtime for Bear by Bonny Becker, ill. by Kady MacDonald Denton (Walker Books 2010)

  • The Bear by Raymond Briggs (Red Fox 1994)

  • Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins 2005)

  • The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (HarperCollins 1956)

  • The Great Cheese Robbery by Tim Warnes (Little Tiger Press 2015)