- Purchase/rental options available:
The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 16-30
[Access article in PDF]
A Knock at the Door: Reading Judith Kerr's Picture Books in the Context of Her Holocaust Fiction
The question of how the Holocaust should be represented to children, in particular through the medium of literature, has been much discussed. In "Holocaust Literature for Children," James Farnham lays out the first stage of the argument: "Initially we may be dealing with the general question of whether evil should be brought into children's literature at all... But if we agree that evil as such should be included in the presentation of reality in children's literature, then I can think of no reason why the Holocaust should be excluded" (55; Russell 267). Eric Kimmel's essay "Confronting the Ovens" reflects on the problems involved in the creation of Holocaust literature for children. Kimmel notes that the weight of creating a memorial to the dead "hangs especially heavy over the juvenile writer, who is torn between his duty toward his subject and his responsibility towards his craft" (84). This dilemma is taken up by Virginia Walter and Susan March, who suggest that "No matter how ambiguous or bleak the situation may seem throughout the plot, the conclusion must provide the child reader with some resolution" (37). The issue of resolution is brought into focus by Adrienne Kertzer's observation that "If we persist in thinking that children need hope and happy endings (and I must confess that I believe that they do), then the stories we give them about the Holocaust will be shaped by those expectations" (253). The problem, therefore, is that having accepted that we want books with which to educate our children about the Holocaust, we still require writers to be sensitive to the particular needs of their audience; the events of the Holocaust must be [End Page 16] presented truthfully without the child being denied the possibility of an optimistic and life-affirming outcome to the story. As Walter and March conclude: "The problem of the less developed cognitive capacity and limited life experiences of the young reader often manifests itself in a tension between the need to protect the child and the need to inform" (39-40). This particular tension resonates to powerful effect on both sides of the equation: for those with stories to tell and for their child audiences.
The writer and illustrator Judith Kerr presents a particularly interesting paradigm because she has produced narratives about the Holocaust for all ages (the autobiographical trilogy Out of the Hitler Time), beside a large number of picture books for young children. The first volume of the trilogy, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, is the only part of the fictionalized memoir specifically aimed at a child audience. Kerr's note informs the reader that "All my novels are based on things that happened to me a long time ago. I wanted to describe what it was like--what it was really like--to flee from the Nazis" (author's note, Out of the Hitler Time 810). Kerr is equally, if not more, celebrated for her picture books. The world of picture books designed for very young children is typically made up of a cozy round of picnics and domestic chores; in Kerr's picture books, however, danger is ever-present, as is a thread of anxiety about separation that runs through them. Commenting on Kerr's writing, Gillian Lathey suggests that the picture books and the autobiographical fiction should be viewed entirely separately; she notes that Kerr "had already established a successful career as the author and illustrator of picture books for younger children, for example Mog the Forgetful Cat (1970) and The Tiger Who Came To Tea (1968) when she started work on the trilogy of novels based on her childhood as a Jewish refugee in Europe and her new life in England" (33). Given their dates of publication, however, and Kerr's statement that she "writes slowly and with difficulty" (author...