Polite notice/potential spoiler alert: this one might make you sniffle. And, um, it’s about a Jewish family in the 1930s. But not quite like how you’d think.
In 2013 I was lucky enough to go to the Hay Festival and attend an interview – which was more of a conversation – between two of the most prominent writers my childhood, Judith Kerr and Michael Morpurgo. I learnt that Michael Morpurgo failed his 11+, that Prince Philip read Mog and that Judith Kerr is not, as I’d assumed, born-and-bred English. She was born in Berlin, where her father, Alfred Kerr, was a big deal in literary circles. He saw the writing on the wall and spoke out against Hitler before a lot of people did… He was also Jewish, so his name was on the top of a list the Nazi party published stating who they would shoot should they come to power. He moved his family to Switzerland in 1933, just before the Nazis were elected.
I wouldn’t normally add so much background to a fiction novel – and you certainly don’t need to know it to read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit because the novel is, technically, a children’s book. It’s funny, it’s easy to read and its main character, Anna, is a little bit like every seven-year-old who lives with her brother and their parents. The whole story takes place before 1939 – war isn’t really mentioned – and the plot concentrates on Anna’s experience leaving Berlin for Switzerland. Then her experience leaving Switzerland for Paris, then Paris for London. First and foremost it’s a children’s book, about children and aimed at them. But it’s also an autobiography; Judith Kerr writes in the notes that she wrote it to help her own children learn about her childhood.
Course, reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as an adult, in the same week Syrian children were drowning in the Mediterranean, it was surreal to realise that Anna and her family were some of the first refugees of the Second World War. It also made me want to cry my eyes out, because Anna is almost completely unaware of what’s going on outside of her little world; anti-Semitism, the probability of war and the realities of seeking refuge in a foreign country aren’t such bold themes as they would be in an ‘adult’ novel. That’s what makes it so poignant (and a little bit ironic). Finishing the book made me want to find anyone who opposes helping the current refugee crisis and throw them into a dingy off the coast of Greece. This novel is historical, but it also couldn’t be more current.
I got to meet Judith Kerr at Hay, and at the time I didn’t realise how lucky I was to meet her and to see her interviewed. Mog the Forgetful Cat and The Tiger Who Came to Tea are classic children’s stories, but it’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit that you should make your children read as soon as they’re old enough to get through a prose novel. Then you should borrow it off them. (If you buy it, try to get hold of the Essential Modern Classics edition; there are notes from Morpurgo and Kerr plus a bit of historical background.)
I’m off to read the next book in the series. There are two more, obviously… there’s the war to get to yet. I’m just glad I know Anna has a happy ending.
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