Publishing world pays tribute to 'extraordinary' Judith Kerr

Publishing world pays tribute to 'extraordinary' Judith Kerr

Figures from across the children’s book world have been paying tribute to the “extraordinary” Judith Kerr, following her death at the age of 95.

The writer and illustrator of books including first book The Tiger Who Came to Tea and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit passed away at home on 22nd May following a short illness.

Ann-Janine Murtagh, executive publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, led the tributes today, describing how Kerr's “incisive wit and dry humour made her both excellent company and a joy to publish”.

Over at Penguin Random House Children’s, m.d. Francesca Dow said she had heard the news with “deep sadness”. She told The Bookseller: “Her books mean so much to so many, and have played such a profound role in inspiring a deep love of stories and illustration in generations of children. 

“Judith was a prodigious talent, both as an illustrator and a writer, and we are blessed that she leaves as her legacy an incredible joy-giving body of work - with the wonderful Tiger who Came to Tea a personal and family favourite (imagine a tiger being able to drink ‘all the water in the taps’) and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit still today a brilliant and vivid picture for children of what it means to leave your home and your country and find yourself a refugee  - which will continue to inspire for years to come.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with Judith’s family, friends, and her publishing family at HarperCollins.”

Waterstones children’s laureate Lauren Child added: "I loved her sense of humour, she was always the most interesting person in the room and was always so curious about other people and what they had to say. She was someone who never expected the focus to be on herself, despite her enormous talents. Her work has spanned generations, but I never thought of her as old because she wasn’t old in her mind or body. I’m a huge admirer of her work as a writer and as an illustrator. She was an incredible person and a great friend."

Kerr's books have remained hugely popular among children and their parents, proved when, in 2015 at the age of 92, she became the oldest author to hit number one in the Nielsen BookScan era with Mog’s Christmas Calamity.

Waterstones’ children’s book buyer Florentyna Martin said Kerr’s impact had been “immeasurable”. She told The Bookseller: “For many readers, Judith’s books are the first adventures to inspire a love of stories, and they have shaped many of us into the booksellers we are today. Her impact on children’s books – on books overall – is practically immeasurable. She reached generations of readers, young and old, with her stories, and her books will continue to bring  a smile and warmth to children all over the world.

“Judith was a spark of pure joy, an inspiration in the world of books and storytelling, and she will be deeply missed.”

Wayne Winstone, who runs Winstone’s bookshop in Sherbourne, said her unique books had clearly resonated down the years by combining nostalgia with great story-telling.

He said: “Judith Kerr is one of the few writers I can think of that has driven new parents into bookshops wanting to share the experience they had with their own children reading her books. Her impact on the core range of children's books has been huge and the challenge for new writers and publishers is trying to replace those anchors or key titles that you build a range around."

Fellow children’s writer Philip Ardagh told The Bookseller he had met Kerr many times and there was “always that twinkle in her eyes and that mischievous smile playing on her lips”.

He added many people had tried to work out the secret of her debut’s enduring success. Ardagh explained: "The general consensus is that it is a gentle introduction to facing the unknown – the frightening – and coming out the other side unscathed but wiser (having a tin of tiger food on standby). Judith herself was always happy to explain that it was, in fact, about a tiger who came to tea - said with that mischievous smile of hers.

“Judith didn’t shy away from reality, though. In Goodbye Mog, her cat heroine finally died as all cats must but, as Judith explained at the time, it wasn’t so much about killing off a character as thinking about her own mortality at 80. Fortunately for us, she had many more years to come.   

“I, like many it transpires, was expecting Judith Kerr to live forever. It didn’t occur to me that one day she’d be gone which is why, despite her recent illness and impressive age, news of her death came as a shock as well as filling me with sadness. But, of course, she is immortal. She will live on as long as people enjoy her words and pictures, and that’s never going to end, is it?”  

Bestselling children’s writer David Walliams paid tribute online, tweeting: “I am so sad to hear that Judith Kerr has died. She was a legendary author and illustrator, whose stories and illustrations gave pleasure to millions around the world, not least me and my son. Judith is gone but her books will live on forever.”

Cressida Cowell, bestselling author of the How to Train Your Dragon and Wizards of Once series, said: "I was deeply sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr today. She came to this country as a refugee and has given so much back with her joyful creations and gentle humour. She has inspired generation after generation of children to read for pleasure. She was working right until the the very end - as engaged in her nineties as she was as a younger woman. A true creative hero."

Stephen Durbridge, of The Agency, represented Kerr’s film and TV rights along with those of her late husband, screenwriter Nigel Kneale. He said a film of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit had just been made in Germany Oscar-winning director Caroline Link but Kerr, who fled Berlin from the Nazis with her family in 1933, had been “apprehensive” about it.

He said: “She was a quite extraordinary woman of course. Not only did she create those iconic books but she kept writing and drawing right until the end.

“She was also completely dedicated to the work of her husband. Hardly a meeting took place without him being a reference point. She still remained active all through her life, going to events and festivals.”

One of her most recent big events was a Hay Festival appearance in 2018 and director Peter Florence said he had been “blessed” to have her there so often down the years. He said: "Judith Kerr had grace, born of wisdom, generosity of spirit, and the resilience of a woman who had been a refugee from the extremes of 20th century history. She’s brought millions of people to books. The Tiger and Mog are part of life here and everywhere. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is one of the great books of our times.”

John McLay, of the Bath Literary Agency, said Kerr’s stories had been “magical and unforgettable”. He added: “All our lives are enriched by them. And she never stopped. She kept going long after many others would have faded away and retired. She represented the dedication that great children’s authors and illustrators of the last century had and still have. They just keep going! Quentin Blake, Shirley Hughes, Helen Oxenbury, Allan Ahlberg, Michael Foreman – they are all extraordinary in their output and everlasting quality. Judith was one of the best of them. I suspect it won’t be long before somebody makes a film of Judith’s life story. It had everything.”

Sue Wilkinson, c.e.o. of the Reading Agency, added: "Judith Kerr’s books remain hugely popular in libraries; they have been reviewed hundreds of times on our Summer Reading Challenge Book Sorter over the last five years. Research shows that becoming an enthusiastic and accomplished reader starts with finding the book that you can't bear to put down and want to re-read and share. That was Judith Kerr's great gift to generations of children, and to parents and carers as well.”