Tag Archives: Judith Kerr

Farewell to EIBF 2019

Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

This may surprise you, but I occasionally wonder if I’m doing the right thing. In this case the ‘thing’ is children’s books and their authors. But the event honouring Judith Kerr this week, proved to me I was in the right place, and not even crime – the fictional kind – can hope to reach such heights, pleasant though it it.

George Street

There was such a perfect feeling of how good it can be, and I suspect that this is hard to achieve away from children’s books.

And chatting to Chris Close about Judith, I was pleased to find that he too had special memories of her. I was also a little surprised to discover that while he couldn’t instantly recall Daniel Hahn’s name when he walked past, he knows perfectly well what t-shirt Daniel wore in 2010. As you do.

What I was really wanting was to talk to Chris about his photo of Sheila Kanani [in Space], and I like the way he remembers virtually all the people he has shot in his spot in Yurt Gardens. Apparently most of Space this time was made up of St Abb’s Head, which I suppose is the photographer’s ‘bottle of washing up liquid’ in using whatever comes to hand.

Sheila Kanani by Chris Close

When it doesn’t rain, the new style Yurt Gardens is a good place to hang, as proven by the gang of crime writers just round the corner from my sandwich spot. There’s ducks, Chris, and the passing through of many people, who either are very famous, or carrying trays of food. All are important. (Though no ‘Kevin Costner’ this year…)

Ian Rankin and Phill Jupitus

What’s always good in the festival’s second week are all the school children. They have come for the same thing as I have, and often getting the most exciting events combos. I even spied a few teens wearing the authorial blue lanyards the other day. Made me green with envy, that did.

It’s not only old age and feebleness that determines when I attend. Trains have a lot to do with it. They were better this year; partly to do with the new electric rolling stock (pardon me for getting nerdy), and partly because I tried to avoid the worst hours of the day. But when the doors refused to open as we got to Haymarket one day, I learned from the guard that it’s all down to computers now. I wish I didn’t know that!

Elizabeth Acevedo and Dean Atta

We mentioned teeth in connection with Mog’s nightmares. I haven’t been able to ignore the fact that so many authors also have teeth. Well, I suppose most people do, but I am always struck by the wide smiles, full of perfect teeth. And not just the Americans, either. I’ll be spending this winter practising smiling in front of the mirror, but am not hopeful.

Here’s to EIBF 2020, when we will see more clearly?

Jim Al-Khalili

(Most photos by Helen Giles)

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Remembering Judith Kerr

Now that we don’t have Judith Kerr to come and do events, we can have events about her. Because we need them.

Judith might have looked like a little old lady, but in Tuesday’s panel we learned that this was a woman who could out-party those much younger than her. I think Daniel Hahn rather envied her her stamina in that department. And Lindsey Fraser remembered a time when Judith’s train had been late and she needed a whisky, a bit early in the day, but someone sourced the requested tipple.

Her arrivals in the yurt always caused a certain kind of murmur among those present, those who were more famous than Judith, richer, younger; even more important. Everyone had some kind of relationship to her. Catherine Rayner said it felt like meeting the Queen. And like meeting the Queen, it was impossible to talk to her. She tried, but could never get the words out.

Catherine’s friends would ask ‘is she any good?’ as though Judith’s simple picture book drawings meant she couldn’t do proper art. She showed us some of Judith’s sketches, and they were certainly proper art. As was Mog’s scared face in the book about Mog’s nightmares. And those pictures of birds with teeth!

The first book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, often caused people to read hidden meanings into what the tiger symbolised. According to Daniel, Judith said it’s a book about a tiger who came to tea. As for Mog and the translation into German there was a discussion with the translator that Judith lost. Mog would be a boy in German. And then she gave Mog kittens.

Judith Kerr 2

After Judith was widowed she kept drawing, sitting at the same table she’d worked at for fifty years, saying ‘if I didn’t draw, I’d probably have taken to religion.’ Her husband was the one who suggested the plot for her first Mog book by saying ‘couldn’t she catch a burglar, or something?’

Tom Morgan-Jones talked about Judith’s last book, Mummy Time, and brought out so much more meaning from it than I’d seen. It even had those horrible teeth in it, again. He read most of the book, showing how it works on two levels; for the child, and for the adult reader.

Like Tom, Eilidh Muldoon never met Judith. And as everyone seemed to say, she also found the Tiger really scary. When Goodbye Mog was published, she was too old for picture books, but has since discovered how good it is to read them as an adult. The pictures in this last Mog are dreamier than the early Mog illustrations, and this could in part have been due to the same ink not being available.

Goodbye Mog

It’s not only Mog’s death that has helped readers deal with bereavement. Kate Leiper has experience from working in care homes for people with dementia, where she used to show them My Henry, which is about an old lady in a home, who dreams about her dead husband coming back for her. This was written after Judith’s husband died.

As Daniel said, you can have quite dark stuff in picture books. It’s all about condensing, according to Catherine. You put a lot in and then take more and more out. Judith would never use words about that which you could see from the pictures. And in Mog in the Dark – the nightmare book – she only used 50 [different] words.

This was a wonderful panel event; one which made us love Judith Kerr even more. As someone said, she had faith in human nature. And she considered herself British from the start of WWII. That’s worth remembering now, when we remember Judith. The piece from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, read by Lindsey, about the family fleeing Germany, approaching the Swiss border by train, and being so very nervous. It’s all coming back.

Refugee reads

The other night, I was suddenly reminded of Anne Holm’s I Am David. This lovely, lovely story has always been on my ‘journey book’ list. But it is also a refugee kind of story. And worth reading again.

I won’t lie. A publisher presented me with a list of their refugee books, and many of them are excellent. But I will let my mind wander of its own here, and see what I come up with. It will probably mean I forget a really important one, but…

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr. I see from the comments that Judith wanted a cuckoo clock. It brings a whole more human scale to the refugee issue.

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, told by Enaiatollah Akbari to Fabio Geda. Enaiatollah who’s a real refugee, but who was also refused a visa to come to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Oh, those fears that everyone will want to come and live here illegally…

Like the poor souls we meet in Eoin Colfer’s and Andrew Donkin’s Illegal. All that suffering.

Life in refugee camps is no picnic, and The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon is a hard read. Necessary, but harrowing. Or you can read books by Elizabeth Laird and the Deborah Ellis stories from Afghanistan.

In No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton the refugees have arrived, but don’t know if they will be allowed to stay. You need to adapt, but with no guarantee that it will be worth it.

A Candle in the Dark by Adèle Geras is almost happy by comparison. It’s Kristallnacht and Kindertransport territory, but when we read that book we believed we were improving year by year. Yes, it was bad back then, but no more…

Like the true story told by Eva Ibbotson, by one refugee about another. Still makes me want to cry.

Judith Kerr

With the death of Judith Kerr on Wednesday, we have lost another star in the children’s books world. When the great ones like Judith reach such a high age, I always want to wrap them in cotton wool, to protect them and make them last longer, while being very grateful they have made it this far.

But by all accounts Judith didn’t need the cotton wool, continuing to live life as she always had, getting about on her own. I first saw her in Edinburgh ten years ago, and found her seemingly frail, but most entertaining. Then when I discovered I was sitting behind her in the audience at Waterstones Piccadilly five years ago, I was astounded to realise that she was just like anybody else, going to events she wanted to go to and mixing with people.

Judith was one of the ‘older greats’ that I would have loved to meet and maybe interview, but somehow I never felt quite grown-up enough.

I hoped she would go on for much longer, but 95 is a respectable age. Especially if you’re not ill or needing looking after.

I very much hope her end was like that of Mog, and that they are together in some magical place.

Mummy Time

I read Mummy Time with an amused smile, thinking myself so much better than the mummy in Judith Kerr’s new book. But we’re probably all a little too unaware of what our toddlers get [got] up to.

Judith Kerr, Mummy Time

The illustrations are so lovely; really sweet and traditional, showing us a small child going to the park with his – or her? – mummy. The thing is, mummies today are always on their mobile phones, aren’t they? This one certainly is.

She sits blithely on a park bench as her little darling gets up to all kinds of things, and what put that smile on my face was the way her toddler’s antics completely mirrors what she’s talking about. ‘…well, all I can say is, different people have different tastes…’ as the child happily munches on what an elderly man has just thrown on the ground for the pigeons to eat.

But all’s well that ends well. At least for today. That child could do with more, and proper, mummy time. And the pigeons want their bread back.

Quite early on a Sunday, or Day 5 of the EIBF

I never book tickets for events starting at ten on a Sunday, having discovered in our first year that you can’t get there that early. So this year I decided we’d go and see Michael Morpurgo and Barroux at ten, on a Sunday, just because Alex Nye was doing the chairing. And she clearly wouldn’t get there on time either. We came up with various solutions, wondering if we’d have to hoist Alex over the gate so she’d get in, but she ended up being all right, and so were we.

My Photographer and I were so all right we even had a second breakfast, which sort of helps you keep going when you have events at meal times and such like. In fact, as I rushed in to collect tickets I found a relaxed Michael Morpurgo being done by Chris Close, before the rain. I’d wanted to meet Michael properly this time, and when he saw me he said hello, so I must have looked like a hello kind of witch. I was pleased to discover he was being looked after by Vicki, one of my long-standing publicists.

Barroux

We ran on to Michael’s event in the Main theatre, which was worth every one of those early minutes of trying to get to Edinburgh in time. He didn’t do a signing afterwards, but we watched Barroux painting his way through his part of the signing.

‘Backstage’ we found Ade Adepitan being photographed, in the rain, and I was introduced to Mrs Morpurgo, who had not been expecting a Bookwitch to be thrust on her.

Frances Hardinge

Marcus Sedgwick

Before going to the Moomin event with Philip Ardagh, we called at the children’s bookshop where I had estimated we’d find Marcus Sedgwick and Frances Hardinge signing after their event, and as a lovely bonus we got a Blue Peter Gold Badge winner, aka former children’s laureate Chris Riddell. He claimed he had only sneaked into the event, but there he was, at the signing table. A chair for a chair?

Chris Riddell and Marcus Sedgwick

It was time for us to go on to the Corner theatre for Philip Ardagh’s event on the Moomins, before returning to the same corner in the bookshop to chat with him as he signed his rather lovely looking book on his favourite creatures. It is expensive, though, which will be why it was wrapped in plastic, until my Photographer helped by getting her Swiss Army knife out and slashing the wrapping for Philip and his publicist, who was wishing she had sharper nails.

Philip Ardagh

Back to the yurt for a photocall with Ehsan Abdollahi, except he needed an umbrella and we decided it was too wet to snap. (You know, first he doesn’t get a visa, and then we treat him to cold rain. What a host country!)

I thought we could go and catch him at the Story Box where he was drawing, but it was busy, and we left him in peace. I’m glad so many children dropped in for some art with the book festival’s resident artist.

Our early start required us to miss a lot of people we had wanted to see, but who were on much later. And Judith Kerr had been unable to travel, leaving us with more afternoon than expected.

Cressida Cowell

Before leaving for Bookwitch Towers, we made a detour to Cressida Cowell’s signing. Her queue went a long way round Charlotte Square.

By some miracle, the Photographer and I hadn’t quite killed each other by the end of our day.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

No room on the broom?

Axel Scheffler was awarded the inaugural Nibbie for illustration this week. He was ‘very grateful’ that the judges ‘chose me, a foreign EU citizen in Brexit times – that’s a nice gesture.’

I have had many thoughts about Brexit, and I have shared some of them with you. But I am always extra grateful when someone more important can say it for me, using better words. Axel is one such person. And this gifted man felt the award might be ‘a consolation prize. Or even a farewell gift.’

And there is that thing; a let’s be kind to this minority figure, just to show we mean well.

He points out that ‘it’s just ten months until “Freedom Day” – next March – and I – and my fellow EU citizens, many working in the UK book industry – are still living in uncertainty. We have, so far, no guarantee that we can still live and work here in the future. In a worst-case scenario, I might not be allowed to stay here by the time my next book with Julia Donaldson is launched.’

He quotes Michael Morpurgo who said,'”My uncles fought for peace, not for Brexit,” that Britain doesn’t really like the rest of Europe. And he’s right. That hurts, and it makes me angry every day.’

Axel goes on to mention someone I have often thought of in the last year, ‘my friend, Judith Kerr. Here, in this room, you have a refugee from the Nazis. — But after the Brexit vote it feels, despite our contribution, as if this country is saying, “It was all a mistake! We don’t really want you after all.”‘

Axel Scheffler

And he’s concerned for the country’s children. Did the adults who read Room on the Broom to them miss its ‘message of the importance of solidarity, partnership, friendship and kindness? The book wasn’t called No Room on the Broom.’

Well said, Axel, and thank you.

The full speech is here.