Hidden meaning of The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Puzzle: Critics argue the tiger symbolises everything from the Nazis to the 1960s’ sexual revolution. © Judith Kerr

Is it literature or just a great story? The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr will become a TV film, with an all-star cast, this Christmas. Critics say it is a powerfully symbolic tale.

“He ate all the supper that was cooking in the saucepans…and all the food in the fridge…and all the packets and tins in the cupboard.”

These comfortingly familiar words have been read aloud in millions of childhood bedrooms, for more than 50 years. And, this Christmas, they will enter our living rooms in a new television adaptation of Judith Kerr’s classic children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

The short film, which will tell the story of a young girl stuck at home on a rainy day and a tiger with an insatiable appetite, features an all-star cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Tamsin Grieg and David Oyelowo.

“They all loved the book, had read it to their kids, so they said ‘yes’ straightaway,” explains producer Ruth Fielding.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea is not just a much-loved children’s book. For decades, it has provided a rich ground for literary critics to debate the symbolism of the charming, menacing and, above all, very hungry tiger.

But the author, who died in May, liked to keep it simple.

“I remember asking Judith Kerr if the tiger symbolised the 1960s’ sexual revolution,” recalls newsreader Emily Maitlis. “She told me ‘no’, it was about a tiger coming to tea.”

Is The Tiger Who Came to Tea literature or just a great story?

A roaring success?

It’s a great story and it doesn’t need to be anything more, argue some. Kerr herself repeatedly resisted attempts by high-minded critics to impose symbolic meanings on her story of a tiger and a little girl. What’s wrong with a classic, well-written story?

However, there is a reason why the book has been so appealing to critics: it is full of enigmatic symbolism and childhood grief. By suggesting big ideas beyond itself, this book is great literature in its purest form, whether the author acknowledged it or not.

You Decide

  1. Should children’s books count as literature?

Activities

  1. Draw a front cover for your own children’s book, in the style of Judith Kerr’s illustrations.

Some People Say...

“I never think about telling small children what to think.”

Judith Kerr (1923-2019), English author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Judith Kerr illustrated her own stories. Aside from The Tiger Who Came to Tea, she is renowned for her 17-book series about a cat called Mog, and her longer novels for older children.
What do we not know?
What makes a great children’s book. In The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote that a good children’s book should “promote [the child’s] ability to find meaning in life”.

Word Watch

Insatiable
Impossible to satisfy.
Symbolism
A thing that stands in for something else, particularly when a material object stands for an abstract idea.
Enigmatic
Mysterious; difficult to understand.

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