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Best-selling children's authors tell their stories of war

By Andy Walker
Today programme

Tomi Ungerer and Judith Kerr
Worldwide best-sellers: Tomi Ungerer and Judith Kerr

Two of the world's favourite children's authors, Tomi Ungerer and Judith Kerr, describe how their lives were changed forever by World War II.

At first glance, Tomi Ungerer and Judith Kerr might pass for an elderly couple on a cultural trip round London. In reality they are neither.

Both are hugely respected writers and illustrators, whose children's books are worldwide bestsellers: he for titles like Moon Moon Man, Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear, and the award-winning Mallops series; her, for that bittersweet evocation of childhood, Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and 17 books about Mog, a sulky, dreamy but essentially good, cat.

In addition, both Kerr and Ungerer, in London for Children's Book Show at London's South Bank, have wartime childhood memories which have informed their work.

Both were children at the time of Hitler. Indeed, Kerr's Jewish family fled Berlin following the Nazi takeover with 24 hours to spare. "We were terribly lucky to get out," she says.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is based on Judith Kerr's childhood

Her father, the drama critic Alfred Kerr, had made fun of the Nazis. "Later they put a price on his head, before that they published a list of people they said they would shoot as soon as they came into power. My father was the second one on the list."

She became a refugee, first in France and then in England, where her family settled. "Because of the circumstances we were like an island because we were always in different places... Up to the age of 12... I wasn't aware how awful it was for my parents."

Her experiences at the time were central to the semi-autobiographical Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. "I really wanted to write about my childhood because people used to say 'oh it must have been dreadful' and I thought it was lovely," she explains.

"For me really it wasn't about Hitler. Hitler came into it because of the very difficult times my parents had, of which I was not aware because they were so protective."

As well as the Mog series, Kerr is probably best known for The Tiger Who Came To Tea, about a little girl and the hungry big cat who takes over one particular afternoon meal.

Playboy 'food editor'

Ungerer's family lived in the Alsace region of France, annexed by Nazi Germany in 1940. "I had three months to learn German. After that, you could be arrested for a 'bonjour' or 'merci' and go to jail. So, I can tell you, a child can learn a language in three months if he has to."

The best thing still is to read to children, and read to them books which are way ahead of their age
Tomi Ungerer

As a teenager he was in Colmar, one of the last German bridgeheads on the frontline during 1945, where he was put to work digging trenches. "I think for a child it's like watching television. It becomes like an adventure after a while," he says.

While Judith Kerr felt welcomed in post-war England, Tomi Ungerer's experiences were far darker. Being an Alsatian, coming from a border area formerly annexed by the Nazis, he was treated with great suspicion by other French people.

Only three people from his class gained university degrees. But Ungerer has never been bitter. As he says, "challenges without hatred, that's what's important."

He relocated to the United States in 1956. After building a reputation as a children's writer, he branched out into satire, advertising, architecture and erotica.

Besides this, Ungerer was food editor at Playboy, became a vehement supporter of civil rights and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.

He remains a controversialist even now, though he is feted around the world and is the only living Frenchman to have a museum dedicated to him.

Despite being a global bestseller, Ungerer's Otto, The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear, has just been published in English for the first time. It tells the story of a German-born teddy bear who is separated from his Jewish owner, lives through World War II, and is reunited with his original owner 50 years later.

Cover of Otto by Tomi Ungerer
Otto tells the story of World War II through the eyes of a teddy-bear

Ungerer is typically outspoken about not sheltering children from the sometimes harsh realities of life. "I do believe in traumatising children," he says. "I think they must see the gallows and the gas chambers. Those things existed and we don't want these things to happen again. I think children should be hit on the head with reality."

Both he and Kerr write and illustrate their works, and both still have drawings made when they were children. "My mother never threw anything away," he says.

Kerr is clear that beyond her reputation as a writer, illustrating remains her chief passion. "I'm the daughter of a writer, I'm the wife of a writer, and now even the mother of a writer... but my first love is drawing."

When it comes to childhood learning, Ungerer prescribes a simple, old-fashioned, approach. "The most important thing in education... is to develop the curiosity in the child. A comic book doesn't leave any space for imagination, it's already delivered," he argues.

"The best thing still is to read to children, and read to them books which are way ahead of their age and make them curious about the world."

Neither Ungerer nor Kerr can be said to be in thrall to sentiment. As Ungerer puts it: "I really don't believe in all these emotional wishy-washy books with lovely teddy bears. That's not what life is about. My books have to deal with civil war, with injustice, with people who do not fit into society.

"In all my children's books, the children are never scared... The adults get scared because I think sometimes children are stronger than adults when it comes to coping with reality."

Kerr agrees. "I killed Mog off and I was told in the bookshops the mothers were all in tears but the children took it in their stride."

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