Judith Kerr, 94, worries about adults using gadgets not kids

Children’s author says children reading was once frowned on just as their use of devices is now

Judith Kerr and Benedict Cumberbatch

Judith Kerr and Benedict Cumberbatch at the Storystock festival in London.
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

If a tiger did ever come to tea many adults would miss it because they are too busy staring at their phones, the children’s author Judith Kerr fears.

The 94-year-old writer and illustrator was on Tuesday joined by Benedict Cumberbatch to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her classic story The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

Kerr was asked if she was concerned about children being too obsessed with technology. She said she was more worried about the adults. “I sometimes feel there might be a tiger rushing along the road and no one would see it except me,” she said. People who stare at their phones are missing out “because the world is quite interesting”.

Judith Kerr and Benedict Cumberbatch

Judith Kerr and Benedict Cumberbatch with a young girl dressed as Sophie from the story Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

She said she felt like “the only person, because I don’t have any of those things, who actually sees what is going on”.

Kerr, who escaped from Hitler’s Germany as a child, has written and illustrated 33 books that have sold about 10m copies around the world.

None is more celebrated than her first, a sweet book that opens with the lines: “Once there was a little girl called Sophie, and she was having tea with her mummy in the kitchen. Suddenly there was a ring at the door. Sophie’s mummy said, ‘I wonder who that could be?’”

It was, spoiler alert, a tiger that had invited itself. It is not dangerous in any way but does eat all the food and drinks all the drink.

Speaking at the Storystock festival in Battersea, south London, Cumberbatch said he had vague memories of it being read to him as a child and he now reads it to his two young sons, Christopher and Hal. “It is something that has continued from generation to generation and it’s now a wonderful thing to be passing it on.”

Kerr said it was a bedtime story she made up for daughter. “It didn’t occur to me to do anything with it until about five years later when my children were both at school and I had time to work again. “Because I told it so many times I still knew it word for word and so I thought I would make it into a picture book. It’s the only picture book I’ve ever done where the whole story came first.”

She suggested that fears of children reading less because of technology need to be treated with caution. “It’s slightly odd hearing the comments about children using electronics all the time because I do remember a time when I was a child when reading was not altogether approved of. “People would say, ‘he’s always got his nose in a book’. And now, you know, a child reads you say, ‘wonderful, he reads’.”