Judith Kerr reading from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to the children at Seven Stories
When children's author Judith Kerr and her family made their dramatic escape from Germany on the eve of Hitler's rise to power in 1933, she was allowed to keep only her most precious belongings.
Chief among them were her drawings and handmade books, which she continued to work on and develop as the family made their difficult escape from Nazi Germany via Switzerland and Paris to London.
Seventy-six years later, Kerr is one of Britain's most popular children's authors. A Grand Dame of the genre best known as the writer and illustrator of the popular Mog series and The Cat Who Came To Tea, her autobiographical novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, gives a distinctive child's perspective on the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, recounting her family's escape from Jewish persecution.
Now the raw materials of this long and poignant literary journey are in the care of Seven Stories, the centre for children's books, in Newcastle. Kerr gave her archive to them 2008, and the centre now holds original artwork and manuscripts by more than 70 British children's writers and illustrators, using them for inspirational learning activities with schools and families.
The centre is poised to launch a major retrospective exhibition on her life on September 16, informed and developed in part by the Seven Stories' learning team's innovative use of the materials.
Using When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and the drawings and writing from 1930s Europe as a starting point, they have engaged with local pupils to explore themes of being a refugee, adapting to new cultures and the importance of friendship and family.
The children were encouraged to explore the archive
The work has been funded by innovative learning programme Their Past Your Future, and has seen staff working with year five and six pupils from Christchurch Primary in Shieldsfield, one of the centre's "doorstep schools".
"The illustrations we have include some she did when she was still living in Germany, so the they have done that journey too," says Sarah Millar, Learning and Participation Co-ordinator at Seven Stories. "What's been fascinating the children is how these are one of the few things that were saved out of all of the items that had to be left behind."
Kerr's experience of being a refugee was explored by the children through drama, film making, picture books and storyboards and, as a number of them had personal experiences of being refugees, they were able to able to make connections between the impact of war and conflict on their lives and the experiences described by Judith in the book.
"For a lot of the children it was interesting to discuss their differences of experience and how they felt when they had to pack," adds Sarah. "Some of them have had more local experiences. One of the pupils had moved recently from Scotland and had experiences of packing and leaving things behind.
"We also have little books she would have drawn, illustrated and written for family and friends. They didn't have a lot of money as they were moving around, although her father was working for one of the German papers in Paris."
Following the story's trajectory of flight and escape, the team were able to use these books and the original drawings and manuscripts to explore a range of issues with the children.
One poignant section from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit recounts her early experience of schooling in Paris, when she was assigned a member of the class to be her friend.
The original drawings relating to Kerr's escape from Germany are included in the archive
"We have eight different languages in the class," says Sarah. "The book was a chance for them to share their voice. It was a two-way street and was very interesting because we used drama as a way to discuss a lot of issues."
A strong supporter of the work of the centre, Kerr agreed to travel up from London for a question and answer session.
"They had some really interesting things they wanted to discuss with her," says Sarah. "For a lot of them it was a new experience to meet an author, especially one they felt they had really invested in. They knew a lot about her work and her personal story."
The workshops and sessions can be seen through footage in the exhibition.
"It's been very rewarding to focus on an author and her work with a very dedicated and focussed bunch of children," added Millar. "They will be coming down to the launch of the exhibition as VIPs."
From The Tiger who Came to Tea to Mog and Pink Rabbit – a Judith Kerr Retrospective opens at Seven Stories, Newcastle, on September 19 2009.