Friday, 27 March 2015

Books for Children: In praise of Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
I've always loved Judith Kerr, the writer of the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. As a child I loved those books, for the artworks as much as the brilliantly intriguing stories. (Mog goes out in the garden and thinks "dark thoughts" because she's forgotten that she has been fed. What a complex idea for a children's book, and so memorable).

Recently I heard Kerr being interviewed on Radio 4 about her memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and I decided to read the book to the boys. It's an autobiographical story about how she, her brother and her Jewish parents fled Germany just before the Nazis came to power, travelling first to Switzerland, then Paris and finally London, where the family ended up.

I remembered enjoying the book as a child, and I also thought it would be a good way to introduce the thorny topic of Hitler and the Holocaust into conversation (a tricky subject with boys, who I find are simultaneously fascinated by this kind of thing and also liable to be traumatized). It is; because although there is a hidden menace behind much of what is happening in the book, it's also an everyday story of a family.

On some nights the boys were laughing out loud at passages in the book (such as when Grandma and her annoying dachsund, Pumpel, come to stay); on other nights they were scared (such as when the family are escaping from Germany on the train and having their passports checked) and on other nights we were all angry or sad (such as when the family meets some other Germans who shun them because they are Jewish).

It's stimulated some amazing bedtime conversations, from what to do if you buy something and it doesn't work (there's an episode in the book where Papa is sold a dud sewing machine), to why Hitler was such an evil man.

The boys, from having initially been reluctant to read this book (they're obsessed with Percy Jackson at the moment and wanted another installment), ended up loving it and asking me if there was more about Anna and her family. I said no, but I've just been on Amazon and found to my delight that there are two more autobiographical books by Kerr, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. They sound more grown up, so I'm going to read them first myself before I try them on the boys, but I think she's a hugely under-rated writer so I'm looking forward to reading them myself.

One of the quotes stuck out from the final chapter last night - it's from when Anna is reflecting on whether having moved countries so many times means she has had a "difficult childhood.'

 Sometimes it had been difficult -- but it had also been interesting and often funny. And as long as she and Mama and Papa and Max were together, she could never have a difficult childhood.

I think all of us current and former expats can reflect on that one.


Was Living Down Under said...

oooh thanks for this. I read Princess Margaret's diaries to the girls - I think it was called "Diary of a Princess" or something like that - I found it at the library around Rememberence Day and then we read another diary though I think that was fiction - of a young girl living in France and how she joined the resistance. I think learning about history through children's eyes makes it less traumatic.

Right now we're reading Swallowdale but when it's done I think we might need a change of pace.

Anonymous said...

I read an awful lot of Holocaust fiction as a child (which is weird, because I'm not Jewish, but there you go), and Pink Rabbit is the one that stuck with me. As an adult, I find myself intoning "This is no way for children to grow up", and no joke, I have had nightmares about that one scene where the adults are talking about the camps. Never had nightmares about The Devil's Arithmetic, and that actually takes place in a concentration camp.

The other two books by Kerr are. as you guessed, much more grown up. In fact, I think the second one involves her affair, at the age of 16, with her adult art teacher.

If you want to read something else to the kids that focuses around WWII, you can try something more England-centered (I think I had a very romantic idea of the war, because "Blitz evacuees" was the second biggest feature of my childhood non-fantasy reading) like My Family For The War, The War That Saved My Life, or The Sky Is Falling. Come to think, Michelle Magorian's written a whole slew of post war stories involving evacuees and their families. (Oh, and there's always A Tale of Time City, because who doesn't need more DWJ in their lives?)

About Last Weekend said...

Gosh I've never heard of these. will look them up, my kids do not read so may tempt them

nappy valley girl said...

Conuly - thanks for those tips. I am reading the second one now and yes, it is definitely quite grown up. Another good evacuee book is Carrie's War by Nina Bawden. The boys and I watched the film recently and it's a great story.

Anonymous said...

I've read that one. Read it at the same time as Searching for Shona, which combines evacuees with swapped identities, that's a good one.

Oh, and on the "escaping because Jewish" front we have the very gentle Lydia, Queen of Palestine. (I really can rattle these off at the drop of the proverbial hat.) I say gentle in that if you don't know there's a Holocaust going on, you won't know. It's not gentle in that the main character is a real brat - but in a good way.

Clare Taylor said...

I loved the Tiger and Mog books (when we move countries soon, neither of those will be amongst the books we leave behind - for me, as much as for the Boys!). If you want more WW2 literature, try 'The Machine Gunners' which Boy #1 read last year (after I had read it first to check it was OK). It's set in the UK (although based on something that actually happened in Holland after the war), and I think it probably gives children a good understanding of what it would have been like to grow up during WW2 in the UK.

Jacqueline said...

I recently took my children to hear Judith Kerr being interviewed at the Southbank. She was so tiny and frail looking until she spoke and then it was with passion and humour. So glad I went.