The Tiger Who Came to Tea is another of those books that I loved when I was little, and was so excited to share with my own children. There’s a timeless appeal to the story of a tiger who, ever so politely, invites himself in for tea, and then proceeds to eat everything in the house.
It’s a sweet and simple tale, beautifully illustrated, that has been enjoyed by generations of young readers. But reading it as an adult I am also now aware that there is a darker story behind the book. Author Judith Kerr was born in Berlin in 1923 and was the daughter of a German-Jewish theatre critic who was vocal in his criticism of the Nazis. The family fled Germany just before the Nazis came to power and eventually settled in Britain. Kerr explored her experience as a child refugee in the semi-autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (which I will also be introducing my children to when they’re older). But fellow children’s author Michael Rosen has suggested that, consciously or subconsciously, the story of The Tiger who Came to Tea could also have risen out of Kerr’s experiences as a child, and that sense of an imminent threat that could disrupt domestic life.
Whether or not Kerr intended this subtext to the story, it’s an interesting reading. Another I’ve heard sees the tiger as a metaphor for post-natal depression – this interpretation of the chaos wreaked by the uninvited guest would certainly ring true with any mother who has struggled to get through the day with a young child.
Of course, it’s possible to read too much into a book. Perhaps it is just a charming tale about an imaginary tiger. But, reading it now, the interpretations and context behind this childhood favourite remind me that the best children’s books – as with the best adult’s books – invite constant re-visiting, allowing readers to find new meaning and develop their own theories.