Tigers Who Come to Tea, and other Cat Tales…

Tigers hold a special place in the heart of Princeton.

Princeton Tigers

Nassau Hall tigers – princetoniana.princeton.edu

A pair of tigers stands guard on both sides of the entrance to Nassau Hall, the historical and logistical center of Princeton. A more recent pair of statuary tigers prowls outside the main gate of Princeton Stadium — home of the Princeton Tigers — perhaps a warning to visiting lions, bears, and bruins to “abandon hope all ye [opponents] who enter here.”  Princeton’s thirty-seven varsity teams — and others — are nicknamed (surprise!) “the Tigers”  and they generally sport tiger colors of orange and black  Tiger colors, tiger images, and tiger-related names abound all over campus, and indeed throughout the town of Princeton too.

Princeton tiger!

Noveau tiger outside Princeton Stadium

Cotsen Tiger

Cotsen’s tiger: “My, what big paws you have…”

The Cotsen Library’s personal tiger, Sir Fortissimus T. Tigris, sits atop a section of Cotsen’s Wall of Books, welcoming visitors and standing silent guard over the collection and its visitors of all ages. Not far from him in Firestone Library is the Tiger Tea Room, a small den for tigers, and others, taking a break from hitting the books.  Tigers and tea?   Hmm… Where might I have heard that echo before?

The Tiger Who Came to Tea: cover (Cotsen 151774)

The Tiger Who Came to Tea is, of course, the title of the classic children’s picture book by Judith Kerr, who created both the artwork and text in the tradition of great children’s book author-illustrators, such as Kate Greenaway, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Ezra Jack Keats, whose The Snowy Day was recently named by the New York Public Library as its “most checked-out book” of all time (narrowly nosing out The Cat in the Hat with a total of some 485,583 check-outs compared to 469,650).

Originally published in 1968, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is one of the best-selling children’s books of all time, having been translated into 11 languages and having sold over five million copies by the time of its 40th anniversary in 2008. While Tiger is Kerr’s most well-known book, it was by no means her only one; she authored at least thirty-six books, and her series of books about Mog the cat — beginning with Mog the Forgetful Cat in 1970 and ending with Goodbye Mog in 2002 — were also best-sellers, much beloved by both children and cat aficionados, and a testament to Kerr’s interest in exploring the secret lives of cats of all sizes in her children’s books.  The Mog series was based on the family cat, but Tiger, Kerr’s first published book, began as a bedtime story told to her daughter — and like many bedtime stories, it was apparently repeated over and over again, as any reading or story-improvising parent can attest. (But would that we all had Judith Kerr’s genius!)

Do you think I could have tea with you?

A little girl named Sophie and her “mummy” are having tea — a commonplace British activity in the 60s — when “suddenly there was a ring at the door” …. and things begin to get surreal.  For the doorbell ringer is not the milkman, nor the grocer, nor a key-forgetting daddy, but rather “a big furry, stripy tiger,” who says that he’s “very hungry” and asks if he can have tea with Sophie and her mother.  We’re not in Kansas anymore…

Think about it for a moment.  A stranger unexpectedly rings the doorbell, a little girl opens the front door, and finds not only a stranger, but a full-grown tiger there!  In another era or a fairy tale, this might have been the beginning of a cautionary tale, or at least a trip into the bizarre.  (And why does a “hungry” tiger ask for some tea, anyway?)  But this is where the genius of Kerr’s art comes into play, I think.  Take a look at her portrayal of the scene: while the gigantic tiger already has a huge fore-paw inside the door, there’s no sense of menace in the scene. It might be a Halloween prank (if in the USA, of course) or a lark.  The tiger has a big smile, which he somehow maintains throughout the story, even when he’s gobbling down everything in the kitchen, helping himself to everything on the stove and inside the refrigerator or the cupboard, and “drinking all the milk, and all the orange juice, and all Daddy’s beer.”

He looked around the kitchen to see what else he could find.

Most important of all, the little girl shows no sign whatsoever of being afraid in Kerr’s depictions of the scenes.  Quite the contrary, she hugs him and pets his tail all the while.  She somehow knows that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  And so does a reader; it’s like a comedy where somehow we trust that all’s well and that all will end well too, no matter how topsy-turvy things may get for a while. And that comforting assurance really resides in the visuals here.

I can’t help thinking of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, where little Lucy the youngest of the children — and perhaps the most innocently virtuous — has no fear of Aslan the lion, who in turn treats her with particular kindness. (The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe and the other Narnia tales had been published in the 1950s, and would presumably have been familiar to a mother and a child by the 60s.)

I think I’d better go now…

Having eaten and drunk everything in the house and wrecked the kitchen in the process, the tiger suddenly decides, “I think I’d better go now.”  “And he went.”  Just like that!  Who needs continuity or writerly preparation?  It just happens that way, just as things happen go in a child’s imagination.  Part of Kerr’s genius, I think, is not saying too much or writing too much description or dialog; her story just ebbs, flows, and jumps with a childlike sense of spontaneity.  When all experience is new, who has expectation, much less anxiety?

The tiger leaves the kitchen in a complete mess; unlike the Cat in the Hat (another havok-weaking feline), the tiger doesn’t bother to clean up after his mayhem.  And Sophie’s mummy wonders what to do; there’s nothing left for “daddy’s supper” either.  The thirsty tiger has also “drunk all the water in the tap,” so Sophie can’t have a bath – thus, a doubly-happy kid is she!  (But what happened to the water “in the tap”?  Did the tiger somehow drink up all the water in London?  Another piece of childlike — and child-delighting — magical realism!  Only adults think of such logical complications in a children’s story — and maybe only critical bloggers as well!

Sophie’s daddy comes home “just then.” Either a long time has passed while the tiger has been feasting and drinking, or a magically foreshortened day.  But no worries…  The family just goes out to a cafe for dinner and has a very English dinner of “sausage and chips,” followed by a child-delighting dessert of ice cream  On their way to the cafe, they pass a tiger-colored cat on the street, as Kerr depicts the scene.  Is this some visual allusion to the tiger?  Or perhaps a suggestion that he has magically changed size?  After all, the street cat has the same smile as the tiger!  Who knows?  But maybe that’s something for a child to notice on a fiftieth rereading? And perhaps ask about as well?

And they walked down the road to a cafe… But what about that little, tiger-colored cat?

… a very big tin of Tiger Food, in case the tiger should come to tea again.

The next day, Sophie and her mother go shopping and “buy lots more things to eat,” including a “very big tin of tiger food in case the tiger should come to tea again.”  (Doesn’t  every neighborhood store stock tiger food by the can?  It must be something like the “fish food” that used to be readily available at grocery stores and Woolworth’s?)  They’d both be happy to have the tiger come back, mess and all, it seems.  And just look how delighted Sophie is in Kerr’s visual presentation, as she hugs the “smiling tiger” tin!  What parent wouldn’t want their child to be so happy?  Only a Grinch.

Their shopping plans are for nought however.  The tiger doesn’t return.  “But he never did”  — those are the last words in the story — suddenly and perhaps with a surprising sort of disappointment.  Think of how many children’s stories end with the fun disrupter-of-everyday-banality promising, “I’ll be back,” so that children can await his/her return in eager anticipation?  Not the tiger though.

Goodbye… goodbye… goodbye…

That’s one of the appealing things about Kerr’s story-telling, to me, anyway.  There’s no forced sentimentality or easy prospect of another magic rainbow event.  Sophie is left with a happy, one-of-a-kind joyous memory  — as are the Tigers child-readers.  The midsummer day’s dream is over; now it’s time to return to everyday life, albeit one brightened by a very magical day.

Somehow it seems fitting that Kerr ends her story, not with Sophie and her mother, but with the tiger, which she chooses to depict as he seems to be heading away from us, while tooting on a magic, translating horn: “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”  You can almost hear the bedtime-story-telling Judith Kerr uttering that repeated word more and more softly, while wishing her daughter goodnight and gently shutting off the light, can’t you?

The Good Slave and Her Master: Object Lessons for 1790s England

In January I followed the controversy that erupted shortly after the publication of Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington, prompting Scholastic Press to recall it.  Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the picture book is a tribute to the slave Hercules, a highly skilled chef belonging to Washington, whom Ganeshram imagines happily baking a cake for his master’s birthday dinner.  When it became obvious that Cotsen was not going to be able to acquire a copy of the book through the usual channels, Freeman Ng, author and children’s book blogger, was kind enough to donate his copy to the collection.

After reading A Birthday Cake, I went looking in children’s books of the 1790s  for Black characters who were servants in private families (that’s the period when Hercules was working in Philadelphia).  If any Black domestic slaves did appear in children’s books, I was curious to see how were their circumstances, both physical and mental, were depicted.  Were they presented in sufficient detail for us to see if they were aware of their condition?  And how were their relationships with their masters portrayed?

Some quick and clever searching turned up a handful of interesting stories. Perhaps I should not have been surprised at my success.  Didn’t Lucy Aikin, the niece of Mrs. Barbauld,  boycott sugar as a girl out of anti-slavery sentiment?   The lawyer Thomas Day pointedly attacked the institution of slavery in his famous novel for children, The History of Sandford and Merton (1784-1789), whose narrative focuses on the reclamation of the spoiled son of a Jamaica plantation owner.   During the same period, one of the first slave narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1772) went through nine editions and was translated into Dutch, German, and Russian.

One unknown writer who tried to argue children out of their lack of respect for the victims of the transatlantic business of slavery, was a Miss Mitchell.  Her story “Goodness not confined to Complexion or Form,” was published in Tales of Instruction and Amusement (London: E. Newbery, 1795).  Miss Mitchell published another three children’s books under her married name, Mrs. Ives Mitchell Hurry.   In the Guardian of Education‘s review of Tales, Mrs. Trimmer noted that Mitchell probably wrote it for her pupils, a Miss Harrison and her younger sister A. B. Harrison.  The dedication, which is signed from Copford Hall, the beautiful country manor of the Fiske-Harrison family in Essex, suggests that Mitchell might have been governess to the two daughters of John Haynes Harrison and his wife Sarah Fiske Thomas.

The most interesting character in Hurry Mitchell’s  “Goodness not confined to Complexion or Form” is the father Mr. Murray, who owns a plantation in Jamaica.  At the beginning of the story, the family has just begun living in England so the children can receive a better education than was possible in the Caribbean.  He has also brought over several black servants, including a little girl named Janet, whose parents had been in his service for years.  On their deathbeds, Mr. Murray promised them that Janet would have a friend in him for as long as he lived.

Janet is supposed to be more companion than servant, but the children Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia frequently tease and bully her without provocation. As the children of a Caribbean plantation owner (albeit an “enlightened” one), they regard Janet as nothing more than a house slave.   After observing his children’s cruelty to Janet, Mr. Murray decides to punish them for making Janet’s unhappy situation more unbearable.   First he asks them to explain how they can justify treating the generous and affectionate Janet so cruelly and then picks holes in their logic.  Next he reveals that Janet is of much higher rank than the children as the granddaughter of a king, who lost a war against a neighbor and was sold to European traders (a scenario with a basis in historical fact).  Mr. Murray makes  Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia apologize to Janet one by one, before announcing that they must participate in a week-long educational experiment designed to show  them a thing or two about about their supposed superiority to Janet..

From our standpoint, many critical issues have been left unaddressed in “Goodness.”  Perhaps the most glaring contradiction is Mr. Murray himself, held up as a “moral” Jamaica planter, who champions the interests of slaves when nobly born, but never questions the institution. Then there is Janet herself, more a cipher than a fully realized character.  On the one hand, she has been given a girl’s name instead of one for a dog (many Black boys in children’s fiction are named Caesar or Pompey), Hurry Mitchell never lets Janet speak for herself.  Everything the reader knows about her comes from Mr. Murray.  Janet is easily frightened, reacting more like startled animal than the granddaughter of a king.   Yet Ives Hurry Mitchell insists that the reader, like the Murray children, acknowledge Janet’s humanity: there is no question that it is right for Dorothy, Arnold, and Sophia to be made to suffer for their treatment of Janet and that by suffering, they will change for the better.   So here is the story…

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woman and a sister