The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by Judith Kerr, 1968.
Our edition: HarperCollins, 2007.
Click on the cover to listen to the way we read The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
First published in 1968, Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea continues to be one of the best selling and best loved children's books in the UK. It was an instant hit with my son too when we bought it for him at around the age of eighteen months, and seems to be set to continue to be one of his favourites for some time to come.
The secret behind having remained a hit over forty years after its publication date, despite more than a couple of dated elements -some of which, such as the reference to 'Daddy's beer', rather amusing to refer to out loud- has to be the charming and surreal matter-of-factness and nonchalance of how the girl and the mother in the story let a tiger in to have tea with them in their kitchen.
The sudden appearance of this 'big, furry, stripey tiger' in an entirely routine mother-and-daughter scene is portrayed as exciting and fun, but at the same time, as something absolutely natural and fine. A tiger for tea? No problem, we can handle that. The mother and daughter are both part and onlookers of each of the scenes and this makes readers feel like they are also both watching and taking part. It draws you into a story and into the rather fun possibility that the doorbell could ring any time now and it just could be a tiger. How about that as a thought to entertain on a rainy afternoon?
Sophie and her mother are having their afternoon tea in the kitchen when the doorbell rings. They wonder who it might be, but cannot think of who, so go to the door and see.
When Sophie opens the door she finds a tiger who politely invites himself in: "Excuse me, but I'm very hungry. Do you think I could have tea with you?". Sophie's mother lets him in and offers him a sandwich. The tiger eats all the sandwiches on the plate in one big mouthful. 'Owp!', and, still looking hungry, proceeds to do the same with all the buns, all the biscuits, all the cake, washing it down with all the milk in the jug and all the tea in the teapot. He then looks round for more, until he eats every last bit of food and every last bit of liquid in the house, including all the water in the drains.
He then, also very politely, says "Thank you for my nice tea. I think I'd better go now", and leaves.
When Sophie's Daddy gets back, they tell him all about the tiger and what happened and he suggests they go out for a meal. So they go out in the dark, with 'all the street lamps lit' and eat in a cafe.
The next day Sophie and her mummy go shopping and remember to buy a tin of tiger food just in case.
Judith Kerr's ink and crayon illustrations use a warm palette of colours to achieve a marvellously expressive portrayal of a very remarkable experience in comfortingly familiar terms.
Here are a few of the illustrations from The Tiger Who Came to Tea:
|The tiger sits down to tea|
|Drinking all the tea in the teapot|
|Drinking all the water in the tap|
I must say I absolutely love the tiger's nice, cheeky face.
And I love Daddy's matching tie and socks, here:
Reading it out loud
The Tiger Who Came to Tea is great to read out loud for several reasons. It has repetition (mainly with "all": all the tea in the teapot, all the packets in the cupboard, all the street lamps were on..."), dialogue (a chance to do different voices), and a wonderfully restrained and effective use of occasional rhyme (tea, be, key, see).
There were several things our son loved about The Tiger Who Came to Tea from the very beginning, when he was about 18 months. He particularly loved: 1) the tiger eating everything up in one big mouthful: 'OWP!'-this has been used more than once as a mealtime encouragement and works wonders-, 2) the picture of Daddy holding his key: 'KEY!', 3) the image of Daddy arriving home and taking his hat off: 'Hello!' -we add in the 'Hello'-, 4) pointing out the sausages they are eating in the café and 5) the tiger playing the trumpet at the end: Good-bye--- Good-bye... Good-bye -we ended up buying him a wee toy trumpet as a result-.
From the point of view of the person reading it out loud, it's got a nice rhythm and flow to it and comfortably withstands more than a couple of consecutive readings.
Bits and bobs
Lots of people seem to get upset about the mother being a bit of a 'drip', the tiger drinking 'all of Daddy's beer' and them having 'nothing for Daddy's supper'. It is true that even for the 60s, it's all a bit 50s. If it really upsets you, I suppose you can always change those bits or leave them out (but then would you change the meal at the end for something healthier than sasauges, chips and ice-cream too?). In the version that was published in Spain last year, they 'edited out' both those references to Daddy. On the other hand, you could also lighten up and enjoy the thrill of letting a stranger into your house.
One of the things I love about the end of The Tiger Who Came to Tea is the sense of something special going on when they venture out of the house for dinner and it's dark outside. 'All the street lights were lit and all the cars had their lights on'. Almost as exciting as a tiger coming to tea.
If you are interested in reading more about Judith Kerr (also the author of the Mog series and of When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit), try these links here:
(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Judith Kerr, 1968.