Mister Cleghorn’s Seal, written and illustrated by Judith Kerr, is the venerable author’s first children’s novel since 1987’s A Small Person Far Away – and is also the nonagenarian’s first chapter book for early middle-graders. In the book, due out next week from HarperCollins, a man on holiday at the seashore rescues an orphaned sea pup, names him Charlie, and brings him home to his city apartment. There the seal spends time on the flat’s balcony and in the bathtub, until a lucky turn of events lands them both in far more desirable digs.
The story was inspired by an incident in the life of Kerr’s father, who made a similar seal rescue more than 100 years ago, while staying with a fisherman’s family in Normandy. He traveled home to Berlin by train, with the pup nestled in a box of seaweed in the luggage compartment. Unfortunately, Kerr’s father was unable to give his adopted pet the care it needed, so it did not fare as well as the fictional Charlie. More happily, it was the fate of this real-life seal that sparked Kerr’s interest in retelling the story with a new conclusion.
“On the train, my father visited the baby seal from time to time to give it milk and trickle a little water over it to keep it cool,” Kerr explained. “When he got to Berlin, he and the seal took a taxi to a restaurant to buy some milk. He tried to keep it on the balcony of his apartment for a little while, but sadly the seal wasn’t strong enough to survive.”
Kerr said that during her childhood the pup’s story “was always vaguely around, and more details gradually emerged as my father wrote about the seal.” Yet she added that the idea of basing a children’s novel on the story, and its format, came to her only recently. “I had always wanted to do a book like this, with far more words and black-and-white illustrations, something halfway between a picture book and a novel,” she noted. “And that kind of book seemed right for this story. But I knew it had to have a happy ending – it wouldn’t have worked without it. And the characters are purely fictional. Mr. Cleghorn is nothing like my father. Purely the idea of rescuing a seal and keeping it on a balcony was based on my father’s story.”
More Family Inspiration
Born in Berlin in 1923, Kerr left Germany with her family in 1933 to escape the rise of the Nazi party; they settled in England several years later, after living in Switzerland and France. Kerr studied art in college, and then worked as a scriptwriter for the BBC. She married the late, celebrated screenwriter Nigel Kneale, with whom she had two children, artist Tacy Kneale and novelist Matthew Kneale.
Though she dreamed of being a famous writer as a child, Kerr only started writing and illustrating books when her children were learning to read in the early 1960s. Her first picture book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, was published in 1968, and has sold many millions of copies worldwide. Kerr went on to write more than 30 books for children, including 17 picture books starring Mog, a well-meaning and mischievous cat.
For middle-grade readers, Kerr penned the semi-autobiographical Out of the Hitler Time trilogy, recounting, from a child’s perspective, the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, life as a refugee, and life in Britain during and after WWII. In 2012, Kerr was made an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the U.K. for her services to children’s literature and Holocaust education.
“I don’t think I would ever have written children’s books if I hadn’t had children,” said Kerr. “The Tiger Who Came to Tea was written as a bedtime story for my daughter, Tacy, when she was little. I told her other stories, but she always wanted the tiger. The Mog books were meant to help children learn to read – I was inspired by Dr. Seuss to write something with very few words. And When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit [the debut novel of her trilogy] was written as a way of telling my children about my childhood.”
A Warm Reception on Both Sides of the Atlantic
Rachel Denwood, publisher of children’s books at HarperCollins U.K., noted that her company “is privileged to have published Judith’s work for nearly 50 years, since her very first book! It’s a special relationship.” Denwood said she was thrilled to learn that Kerr had a new novel in the works after almost four decades. “When Judith gave us the manuscript of Mister Cleghorn’s Seal, and brought in her artwork to show us, we knew immediately that is was an extraordinary book,” she recalled. “So we straightaway let Judith know we’d love to publish it, and started making plans.”
Denwood emphasized that Kerr’s new novel contains the classic, enduring elements of her earlier works. “It’s a truly timeless tale with universal themes, and you can’t help but be uplifted by the story and the wonderfully warm drawings that illustrate it,” she said. “Judith has always been, at heart, a storyteller, and her ability to find the warmth and heart in every situation shines through, and allows her to give life and immediacy to events long past. And it’s part of the charm of all of Judith’s books that there is an alchemy between illustrations and text – they seamlessly enhance each other and the overall story.”
In the U.S., Jean Marie Kelly, affiliate publisher of HarperCollins 360, looked forward to adding Kerr’s book to the list. “We love Mog and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, but I couldn’t have wished for any better book to reestablish Judith in the U.S. market,” she remarked. “Sometimes funny, always poignant, Mister Cleghorn’s Seal is a classic in the making. And her gorgeous line illustrations bring the story to life. There is one particular drawing where, when Charlie gets scared, he puts a flipper onto Mr. Cleghorn’s knee for comfort. Pure Judith!”
Kerr, who will soon turn 93, had good news for her many fans across the globe, though she was reluctant to share specifics. “I can say I have just started another picture book,” she said, “but I can’t say what it’s about – yet.”
Mister Cleghorn’s Seal by Judith Kerr. HarperCollins, $14.99 June ISBN 978-0-00-817083-7