Judith Kerr: Childhood reading
Emma Hussain discusses Judith Kerr’s impact on the effects of reading children’s books on child development.
Judith Kerr is one of Britain’s best-loved children’s writers. Her death in May this year was met with an outpouring of messages by people who have loved, grown up with, read and re-read her books over the last half-century. A talented illustrator, Kerr is best known for her picture books, including seventeen volumes about a forgetful cat named Mog, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a book which defined many childhoods, including my own. Whenever a family friend has a new baby, my mum buys them this charming picture book about a tiger who calls on a mother and daughter for tea, subsequently clearing out their kitchen cupboards. The softness of Kerr’s illustrations, and the welcome her characters unquestioningly extend to their unexpected visitor (in a way only figures of children’s literature could), have rendered the book a classic; Kerr beautifully depicted the security of a loving home.
children whose guardians regularly read to them show more empathy
The comforting tone of her popular picture books perhaps stems from the turbulence of her own childhood; she and her Jewish family fled Nazi Germany in 1933, eventually settling in Britain in 1936. The experience is detailed in her trilogy for older children, Out of the Hitler Time. On Desert Island Discs in 2004, Kerr said that she wanted to celebrate the good in life as much as possible – a chance that 1.5 million other children like her in the Holocaust did not have: “I hope I’ve not wasted any of [my life]: I try to get the good of every bit of it because I know they would have done if they’d had the chance.”
If children draw a feeling of comfort and home from Judith Kerr’s work, what else do they take from the books they read? Scientists have proven that children whose guardians regularly read to them show more empathy and have better-developed theory of mind (the ability to understand different people experience different feelings). This can be because books expand the relatively limited environments of children’s lives. Books can be a key to new cultures, feelings, and periods of history. For this reason, children’s author Sharna Jackson recently drew attention to the necessity of introducing more diversity to the sector; in 2018, less than 5% of children’s books published in the UK featured a character of colour. A US study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre found that more animals and automobiles get to be lead characters than children of colour.
Judith Kerr also reminds us that their charm is in their simplicity
Many of the books where children of colour are featured also focus on political causes, rather than allowing them to see themselves represented in stories of commonplace families or magical adventures. However, the increase in children’s stories placing social justice at centre-stage is also an exciting development in the children’s literary sector. It is allowing all children to access information about hope and justice in stories which empowers them as the force for good. Reading a book about Martin Luther King’s childhood in my primary school library had a profound effect on me and I became acutely aware of the need to strive for a fairer world.
While this role that children’s books can play in our lives can’t be overstated, Judith Kerr also reminds us that their charm is in their simplicity. When asked about the possibility of hidden social commentary within her most popular book, she simply said: “It was about a tiger coming to tea”.