When I was little we used to go to the library every Saturday morning. In the early 80s, I lived on a healthy diet of the Milly Molly Mandy, Dr Doolittle and Mary Poppins series. More often than not, my sisters and I had different tastes, but there was one book that came home again and again ‘Mog – the forgetful cat’.
We always had tabby cats and I guess the artwork of a cat peering in the window or flowers being flattened by the generous bottom of said cat was very relateable. Now my dad never said ‘Drat that cat!’ but his offer to give our cat flying lessons was a daily occurence, which Mog did dream of doing!
Fast forward twenty years to 1998 and I’ve just started teaching PE in a school in Surrey, asked to read for storytime as the class teacher has been called out to a meeting.
I read Mog again, but with different eyes. I could see the peculiar way Mog pulled his face, his size – so round, so oversized and yet so gentle and bumbling in his affection for the Thomas family. I see so much story in the art – Dad’s pulled tie and stubble, the way Nicky struggles to awkwardly hold this big cat, the cup of tea by the sullen burglar. I loved the characters and how much story could come from the art and how many stories there could be about an absent minded cat.
I read many more storytimes in the classroom after that.
When ‘Goodbye Mog’ was published I can remember a teacher saying how significant it was as a book, explaining death to young children. it was only then that I learned about who Judith Kerr was – her story. In all the time I was reading, as a child and even as a new teacher, I was always lost in the books, I never stepped outside the covers to consider the who behind the story.
It sounds like a damning statement as someone who now considers herself a writer, but perhaps as it was still pre social media era, and such information wasn’t as readily available as it is now. But I realised, for the first time, the magic it takes to create such stories, someone who truly is caster of spells and weaver of dreams that last for decades. Only a handful of writers have ever achieved that. It says something that tributes to Judith Kerr were not confined to the world of publishing – singers, comedians, tv personalities, elite sports folk and politicians. Everyone had a story memory – a happy one. That is some reach for a forgetful cat and a hungry tiger.
The truth is a lifetime of writing, illustrating and storytelling is a phenomenal achievement by anyone’s standards, but as escapee of Nazi Germany who chose to share her experience in ways that were accessible and yet real to readers, is almost unprecedented. Her first story was published when she was forty-six, an inspiration to any of us who have begun our writing career later than most and ‘Katinka’s Tail’ was published only two years ago in her ninety-fourth year. Her 2012 OBE was awarded “for services to children’s literature and Holocaust education” and only last week she was named illustrator of the year at the British Book awards.
Our lives and bookshelves are richer for her stories and art – Judith Kerr, just like Mog, too lovely to ever be forgotten.