I do not usually review books for a children’s audience as young as this one’s (6-8 say?), but a final, posthumous publication from the pen (and pencil) of Judith Kerr, who died earlier this year, aged 95, is such a milestone in the history of children’s literature, that I cannot let it pass.
The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a thankfully irrepressible classic of children’s picture books, and some of the best of her many Mog titles are not far behind, with Judith Kerr’s own illustrations every bit as charming as her stories. For me though, it is her longer novels, capturing in fiction the essence of her own experiences during and after fleeing Nazi Germany, that are her finest achievement of all. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is not simply one of the best children’s book titles ever, but the story itself, has much the same qualities. Both encapsulate the power and poignancy of a child’s perspective on a period of our recent history that it is terrible to remember but vital never to forget. She devastatingly succeeds in capturing both the inhumanity and the humanity to be found in those traumatic times, without ever straying too far from what is accessible to a young readership. This is something that only a very small group of highly distinguished children’s authors have ever done.(Amongst these are John Boyne, Morris Gleitzmzn, Ursula Dubosarsky, Lois Lowry, Robert Westall and, more recently, Hillary McKay.) Because of this, I rate her book, and, to an only slightly lesser degree its two sequels, as amongst the all time great works of children’s literature.
So I very much wanted her last book to be something special. And, in its own way, it is. This school rabbit may not be a literary rival to her much earlier pink one, but this new book is is a story with Judith Kerr’s wonderful, kindly, funny, charming, and oh-so-humane spirit suffused through every page. Although never stated, the tale, and particularly the author’s own captivating pencil illustrations, have a feel of the 1950s about them. And this is an old-fashioned story, in more than its setting, but then, when the writer, a survivor of the Holocaust days, is well over ninety years old, I think she has a right to be old-fashioned, cozy. Her simple tale of a young child’s home life disrupted by the addition of Snowflake, the creature of the title, comprises a series of delightfully entertaining episodes. The said rabbit, on sabbatical from the classroom and ensconced instead in Tommy’s back garden, has a habit of causing minor mayhem, and peeing over people, with the former in fact often closely related to the latter. Judith Kerr has a magical ability to capture many truths about children’s lives, hopes and fears, not in any terribly profound sense, but rather in terms of the quotidian domestic concerns which are actually the things that effect children most, and mean most to them. It is a rare talent, but one that I think she shared with another contemporary of hers, Shirley Hughes. The Curse of the School Rabbit is a story that I know my daughter would have loved, at the appropriate age. It is one that countless young children will enjoy now, and it is one that will be loved long into the future. The choice of front cover picture is perfect; it captures so much about the story inside. Those pink, caught-in-the-headlight eyes are so simply drawn but convey so much delightfully engaging and amusing expression.
The description ‘national treasure’ can be overused, but Judith Kerr was, and is, a treasure amongst children’s authors and illustrators. As the subtitle of the book below (published at the time of her ninetieth birthday) states, we must celebrate her life and work. The best way of doing that is to share her wonderful books with new generations of children, who will continue to find comfort there. Yes, they also need to be challenged by what our world has since become, and what it still should be. But sometimes old-fashioned is just what they need.