I first met Judith Kerr, one of Britain’s most cherished children's authors and illustrators, at her son Matthew Kneale’s apartment in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome in the mid 2000s. Over wine we discussed geopolitical winds of change, American farm life (she was immensely curious about my upbringing in rural America) and, for reasons I don't quite remember, bikini waxing. It would be the first of many stimulating conversations I had with her over the years, each one a sort of full-immersion into the mind of a creative genius. Every time I saw Grandma Judy, as she was known to all of us in Rome whose children were friends with her two grandchildren, we caught up on politics, my family's farm, and whatever pop cultural trend was topping the news. But the thing I will remember most about her is the way, when she approved of something, whether it was wine or politics, it was simply “rather wonderful.”
The last time I saw her was in Rome, maybe a year before she died. She was concerned about the direction of far-right politics in Europe because she knew first-hand how wrong things can go. Kerr was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1923. She and her Jewish parents fled in 1933 after Kerr’s father, German-Jewish journalist and theater critic, Alfred Kerr, had openly criticized the Nazi regime. They were rightfully concerned about their safety.
The journey of these Jewish refugees, via Switzerland, Paris and ultimately London, inspired her 1971 semi-autobiographical book, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which recounts her painful difficulty in choosing only one toy to take with her on their journey. It wasn't what she took that she remembered, but the pink rabbit she left behind she worried about. She surmised Hitler and his goons had stolen it. A few years before she died, she traveled to Germany to accept a recognition award. Her pink rabbit, just as she suspected, was not there waiting.
Her books about the Tiger Who Came to Tea and the adventures of a clever house cat named Mog, who she created in the likeness of the family cat, are internationally famous (her books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide). But When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the childhood tale by which she should be remembered most. She wrote it in 1968, after her son Matthew, then 8 years old, saw The Sound of Music and marveled that life really hadn't been so bad for Germany's Jewish refugees. Wanting to set the record straight, Kerr wrote Pink Rabbit and followed it up with Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. The trilogy is about the struggles of refugee children and the fears they both face and bury. It is haunting and seems somehow more relevant today than ever.
Kerr was at once a witty intellectual and a loving grandmother. She came to Rome often, and even read her books to her grandchildren’s schoolmates during their primary school reading class. She was bitingly funny, and terrifyingly quick-witted, able to tell stories about almost anything just as if they were unfolding on the pages of one of her many books.
When her husband, Nigel “Tom” Kneale, a British screenwriter, died in 2006, she had to reinvent herself as a single woman in her 80s, which she did by doing all the things she never had time to do when he was alive. She immediately set to writing and illustrating even more than she had before, working every morning on a new book or project to “earn a lunch break.” Her final published project was a book about children who get up to mischief when their parents are on their cellphones, which was published as Mummy Time in early 2019.
She was inspirational and in touch and, even into her 90s, hard to keep up with. She often joked that she wasn't really the best at drawing, but that she felt compelled to do her own illustrations out of duty to the stories she was trying to tell. She would often say that once you “get the hands right,” the rest of the body is easy to draw.
My most poignant memory of Kerr, who I met many times over the years, is sitting at her son's kitchen table in Rome's Jewish ghetto, sipping wine and discussing politics just a few hundred feet away from where some of the worst atrocities of Hitler’s regime had been carried out by Benito Mussolini. Kerr was philosophical about her luck, her fate, and her legacy. She was acutely aware of how lucky she was and how dangerous power in the wrong hands can be.
Throughout her long career, Kerr published 35 books. In 2012, she was given the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her contributions to children's literature and Holocaust education, and in 2016, she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the British Book Trust. On May 13, just over a week before she died, she was named Illustrator of the Year 2019 at the British Book Awards ceremony.
Kerr died May 22 in her London home in Barnes surrounded by her children, Matthew and Tacy. She was 95 years old.