Obituary: Judith Kerr

media captionHow Judith Kerr created a tiger story which charmed the world

Judith Kerr, who has died aged 95, was one of Britain's most successful children's authors.

She was still producing stories and illustrations well into her 90s.

Best known for The Tiger Who Came to Tea and a series of picture books about Mog the cat, she combined great skill as an illustrator with a wry way with words.

She had an ability, which never left her, to see the world from a child's perspective.

Born in 1923, a child of the pre-war German intelligentsia, Kerr was forced to flee with her parents when Adolf Hitler came to power.

The family was Jewish and her father Alfred Kerr was a prominent theatre critic in Berlin - and a critic of the Nazis. Shortly before the Nazi party took control of Germany, Kerr was warned that there were plans to confiscate his passport.

He left immediately for Prague, to be joined later by his wife and two children who travelled by train to the Swiss border. A day later, the Gestapo arrived at their home to arrest them.

The family came to London, via Paris, in 1936 when Judith was 13. She wrote about her childhood and her status as a refugee in a trilogy of books for children, the first of which was When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which became a set text in German schools.

Kerr was already showing promise as an artist during the family's time in Berlin and was touched to discover as an adult that, when the family was forced to flee, among the few possessions her mother had packed were Judith's childhood drawings and paintings.

image copyrightJudith Kerr
image captionThe tiger was friendly, not fierce

In London, she learnt perfect English, trained as a secretary, worked for the Red Cross during the war and later won a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

For a time, she was an art teacher and it was in the school canteen she met her future husband, Nigel Kneale, who was shortly to write the groundbreaking television science fiction serial, The Quatermass Experiment and its sequels. Like him, she became a BBC scriptwriter.

The couple married in 1954, the year after the first series was broadcast. Kerr had helped to make (and operate) the special effects.

They bought a house in Barnes in west London, which featured in many of her subsequent books. The most famous, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, began life when she was at home, the full-time mother of two small children.

"It got really very boring," she later recalled. "We'd go for a walk and have tea, and that was it really. And we wished someone would come. So I thought well, why not have a tiger come?"

She began telling the story to her daughter and then, in her mid-40s and with her children at school, drew the pictures to fit, stripping away any inessential background so that the tiger and the children and a few items of furniture stood out from a plain white page.

The tiger, a friendly rather than fierce presence, turned what might have been positively surreal and deeply unsettling experience -- a wild animal invading a small domestic kitchen -- into a mildly surprising event. The book was published in 1968 and has never been out of print.

image copyrightPA
image captionShe created the cover for the Christmas 2014 Radio Times

When her son protested the books he was learning to read from were too boring, she embarked on the Mog series: 17 picture books in total about a family cat, the first published in 1970.

In them, she deployed her trademark dry humour and used, as she said, "as few words as possible as well as possible".

One policy was never to put anything into words that children could work out from the pictures: it was, she said, a waste of energy for children learning to read to spend time to decipher the words only to discover it was something they already knew.

Then after 30 years, she wrote Goodbye Mog... in which Mog died. It was an almost unprecedented move for a children's writer. But then the energetic Kerr was unlike most children's writers.

She had confronted the possibility of death when a child, and always said she wrote for those many children in Nazi-occupied Europe who -- unlike her -- did not survive to live full and happy lives.

On Desert Island Discs in 2004, she told Sue Lawley: "I think of the business of the Holocaust, and the one and a half million children who didn't get out as I got out, in the nick of time -- I think about them almost every day now, because I've had such a happy and fulfilled life and they'd have given anything to have had just a few days of it.

"And I hope I've not wasted any of it: I try to get the good of every bit of it because I know they would have done if they'd had the chance."