20th December

The book I most associate Judith Kerr with is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and it’s another of the very few primary school class books I actually enjoyed.  It’s a fictionalised autobiography, describing how Judith’s (Anna in the book) family leaves Germany as Hitler comes into power.  Her father (actually the Jewish drama critic and journalist Alfred Kerr) was a noted opponent of the Nazi party and the family escaped Berlin with little time to spare. Pink Rabbit, the first in a trilogy, ends as the family arrives in England as hopeful refugees.  This was the first novel I read set in this time period and is one of the most impactful books I read as a child.

A Hidden Beauty by Tessa Barclay covers a great swathe of time, sweeping through the fifties and early sixties in the wake of Corie Duggan. Corie is a photographer and through her job is present at many of the major events of the period.  I love this kind of book with a long look at the main character.  Tessa Barclay is a great storyteller and this epic example of her work keeps moving along at a cracking pace.  London life in the early fifties, Grace Kelly’s Monaco wedding, war-torn Korea, Cuba in turmoil and the Berlin Wall all feature and are surrounded by a fascinating supporting cast including the up-and-coming politician Jack Kennedy and his PR man, German-American Drew Richter.

Judith Kerr

My introduction to Judith Kerr’s books was not through Mog or the Tiger Who Came to Tea but When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I remember that I was in Primary 6 when I read it and I think it came from the class library but it might have been a class reader. However I came to read it, I loved it. Clearly at that age I didn’t understand the horror lurking behind the story but I did grasp that life was difficult for Anna and her family.

This year Judith Kerr was 90 and, in honour of that HarperCollins reissued some of her most-loved books and published an illustrated autobiography. Here’s how I reviewed it in The Scotsman last weekend:

To celebrate Judith Kerr’s 90th birthday HarperCollins re-issued many of her much loved books this year. So Mog, Pink Rabbit and that Tiger who dropped in for tea are doubtless being enjoyed by many children for the first time. But older readers who already know and love Judith Kerr’s work will be delighted with Judith Kerr’s Creatures (HarperCollins £25). It is her autobiography, written in such a way that it can be enjoyed by older children, teenagers and adults. Throughout the book there are references to her love of art and included are many sketches, photographs and published illustrations. It is both a superb introduction to her life and work and a joy and treasure for those of us who have grown up loving her books.

If you get a book token for Christmas you could go further wrong than buy a copy of this beautiful book!

Book Festivals and Book Launches

Over the last few weeks I’ve met and listened to about as many authors as I could cope with!  Without exception they’ve been lovely people and have had interesting books to talk about but I have to say that, when Friday came and went, I was glad to think that I had a whole week before I had another book event to attend.  It seems you can have too much of a genuinely good thing!

The main reason for my being authored out is the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  On my own account I heard a whole raft of great authors.  Some of them (whisper it!) were even talking about books written for adults.  Alexander McCall Smith was as seemingly random and entertaining as ever although I suspect his performance was more planned that it appeared.  Menzies Campbell was Raj Persaud’s guest – and a fine one he was too.  A politician with opinions he was willing to share, no less.  Waving my chair’s pass, I sneaked in to hear Margaret Drabble.  I have to confess that I’ve never read any of her work but she was fascinating.  And, trying to keep up my knowledge of Norwegian culture, I went to hear Lars Saabye Christensen, talking about Beatles.  One of the most popular Norwegian books of the last quarter century, it’s just been translated into English. 

And then there were all the children’s authors.   I was chairing some events which meant I heard people I might not have chosen myself.  And what a good thing that was!  I enjoyed all the events I was involved in but I have to make special mention of two.  I was delighted to be chairing Elizabeth Laird.  As I’ve said before I have a very high opinion of her books.  It was a joy to hear her talk about The Witching Hour and to listen to all the questions the young people had.  The other mention goes to Michelle Paver, author of The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.  I had read the first book, Wolf Brother, when it came out about five years ago but hadn’t bothered to read the rest of the series.  However, before meeting her in Edinburgh, I read Ghost Hunter, the final book.  I’m still not hugely interested in the historical setting but I found myself engrossed by the book and involved with the characters.  And Michelle really brought the books to life in her excellent session where she expertly fielded some inspired questions.  Both of these authors signed copies of their books for ages afterwards and I stayed around to talk to the young people as they queued.  So-called experts who love to suggest that young people don’t read anything (worthwhile) these days should have been there.  A special mention here to the staff and pupils from Nairn Academy who left at 5.30am to be at the festival.

I chose to go and hear some children’s authors too.  I’ve heard Keith Gray speak a number of times but always at events I’ve organised so it was a pleasure to hear him in Edinburgh where, whatever happened, it wasn’t my responsibility.  He was as funny and interesting as ever, although I have had to take him to task for suggesting that librarians and dragons might appear in the same sentence!  I’ve been reading Joan Lingard’s books for thirty years and enjoying them for as long.  Her latest book was launched at this year’s festival.  What to Do about Holly is a good read and somehow reminded me of the Maggie quartet.  The story is completely different so it must be the atmosphere that is reminiscent.  The Maggie books remain my favourite of Joan’s and I was pleased to have a faint echo of them as I read about Holly.  I’ve saved the best till last, though.  I mean no disrespect to the other authors I heard when I say that this year’s Edinburgh book festival was made for me by the appearance of Judith Kerr.  As a child, I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and loved it.  When I was older, I read the other two books in the trilogy and, for me, these are her best books.  Yes, The Tiger who Came to Tea is good fun and Mog is a lovely cat but there is something special about Pink Rabbit.  Please go and read it if you haven’t already.  When I heard that Judith was appearing at the festival, I got very excited and bought a ticket as soon as they were available.  And she didn’t disappoint.  I am so pleased to have met her.

My last book event was on Friday evening when I went to the launch of The Keepers’ Daughter by Gill Arbuthnot.  I’d been sent a copy of the book by Gill’s agent, Kathryn Ross of Fraser Ross Associates, and I’m grateful for that as it was a great book.  It’s a sort of fantasy but set in a world which is completely recognisable.  The characters step immediately off the page and are people whose fate I can care about.  And in my head I have a map of the islands on which much of the action takes place.  Altogther this is a book I can heartly recommend.

So that’s it: my book-filled three weeks.  Actually, there was one other event but more of that later.  Ahead of me (less than a week ahead) is Stirling Council Libraries’ book festival, Off the Page.  Being responsible for the children’s programme, I’m approaching it with more trepidation than anticipation but I’m sure the authors at it will be just as good as those I’ve heard recently.  Full details can be found at www.stirling.gov.uk/offthepage but just let me mention here that we have this year’s winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal appearing – Catherine Rayner.  Now there’s a coup!