The Tiger Who Came To Tea – #bedtimestories

In #newworldnovel, Features, HOME, LITERATURE by Beci Moss

#bedtimestories is a feature in which people reminisce about their favourite work of children’s literature they read or had read to them as a child and why it remains so important to them today. What were your favourite bedtime stories? Let us know in the comment section below.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea – Judith Kerr

Having conducted a small survey, the damning evidence suggests that as a child, my favourite books were, without fail, the ones with pictures of cake. I really did have an insatiable sweet tooth. I turned my doll’s house into a cake shop. I painted pictures of cake and ice cream on my bedroom walls. When I was three years old, I stole a Mars Bar from the corner shop (I was not convicted) and, in the same year, I had to be taken to hospital for an X-ray after I fell in a valiant expedition for a bowl of Smarties.  If I’d been into comic books, I’m sure ‘Glucose Girl’ would have been the only one for me. But still, my mother and father in their wisdom, deprived my toddler-teeth of the vast amounts of sugar and dodgy 90’s additives that I so obviously craved. As a punishment for their conscientious parenting, the toddler-me demanded the same cake-books over and over and over. The best of these, the one I practically had memorised, was The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr.

‘Once there was a little girl called Sophie, and she was having tea with her mother in the kitchen. Suddenly there was a ring at the door’

There are so many things about this book that appealed to me. It has a certain comforting, simplistic writing style, which makes it pretty much timeless. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful. They stand out against the white page and the figures seem to carry so much vibrancy and movement. More than anything, there is a lot of humour to them. The tiger is utterly amiable, yet simultaneously pillages like a suburban Viking. The anxiety of an uninvited houseguest and the bemused acceptance of him by Sophie’s mother seems like a depiction of typical British hospitality and etiquette, where a guest must never be made to feel awkward or uncomfortable, even if he is gorging on your cucumber sandwiches by their platefuls and turning your home upside down. This serenity in all the characters and the quiet absurdity of the events is what has always stood out for me and is what makes it such an enchanting and funny book.

I did some investigation into the interpretations of The Tiger Who Came To Tea, to see what other people had made of it. It may not surprise you to hear that the humourless melodramatics of Mumsnet did what they do best and ‘raised concern’. One parent said, ‘Stories about animals eating lots of food should be banned. They’re probably to blame for childhood obesity’ (The same parent also slammed The Very Hungry Caterpillar for depicting gross food wastage.) Another concerned parent wrote simply, “THAT TIGER IS A USER”.

There has been some interesting feminist interpretations of the audacious but charming tiger inviting himself into Sophie’s home, eating all the food, ransacking the place and then leaving, never to return. It is suggested that this is some kind of allegory, a warning to all young women. Ladies, beware of charming men. And tigers who walk on two legs.  If we’re going to go down that road, there was a much loved book on my childhood bookshelf, designed to teach you about all kinds of different and exciting jobs to be done out in the world. This fantastically out-dated book was called, wait for it – ‘What Do Daddys Do All Day?’. But that is an angry feminist rant for another day.

Personally, it occurred to me that my favourite childhood book is actually very relevant to a student who has left home. That tiger is in all of us when we, the prodigal sons and daughters, having been malnourished all term, proceed to do a thorough raid of our parent’s fridge. Leaving a trail of disarray behind us, we guzzle all the food, drink all the beer and perhaps someone, somewhere is even attempting to drink all the water out of the taps. It seems the kind of thing that only a student would do.

Reading it as an adult, there is an element of the whole story being part of a game, or a figment of Sophie’s imagination. Near the end of the book, there is a picture of a small orange and black stripy cat grinning under a streetlight, which leaves us wondering whether any of it really happened. This seems to be a common theme in many popular children’s stories, because it brings about that air of charm, mystery and a wry smile from the reader. This little humorous uncertainty or trick would not be obvious to a child, but may only become apparent to the older reader. To me as a child, the book seemed to suggest that the tiger could come to my house. But as I have said, my desire for sweet things drove me to toddler criminality and personal injury, so I think that the tiger would have met his match in me.

Phoebe Talbot

Phoebe Talbot is a student at the University of Edinburgh. She studies German and Linguistics. Phoebe enjoys studying said subjects but, if we’re honest, she’d really rather run away to join the Amazons. Once she has left university and fulfilled this vocation of hers she will sing jazz, listen to foreign crooners and break into song at every opportunity.

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