Forced Migration & Identity

This week’s post is brought to us by Lucy Stone, who did her MPhil in children’s literature here from 2014-15. She has been awarded a Research Excellence Academy Studentship to do her PhD at Newcastle University and study the Judith Kerr Collection at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. Here she tells us about an event on migration and identity, which was held by the European Commission Representation in the UK with Newcastle University and Past Present Ltd.

To take up the pen, pencil or paintbrush proffers the chance to make sense of the beautiful, but also perplexing world into which children are born, grow and find their place as an adult. When it is a world in which children are forced to migrate, drawing and writing can offer a child the chance to negotiate their experience of leaving the place they knew as home and finding another, or, often, a series of new homes. The recent influx of migrants in Europe is eliciting responses in the children’s literature world. One example is the International Youth Library in Munich, where, over the summer, with funding from the Binette Schroeder Foundation, they ran an arts workshop with recently displaced children and documented their project in a short film What do you have in your suitcase?

Earlier this autumn I received an email from Professor Kimberley Reynolds inviting me to speak with her at an event in Newcastle on forced migration and identity, part of a large European Commission project. What a wonderful initiative, I thought, and agreed. It would mean speaking for 35 minutes – at such length I had never spoken – and three weeks later when I boarded the northbound train from Cambridge there I was still scribbling away…

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Lucy giving her presentation – clearly she got it finished!

Children’s literature has a long history of representing displaced people Kim explained to the audience gathered at the Newcastle City Library – an audience slightly smaller than we had hoped, but nonetheless a very attentive, interested and concerned one – before I spoke on the IYL project, showing their short film, and the story of Judith Kerr, one of the authors whose juvenilia and children’s literature I will be looking at in my PhD thesis.

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Photographs © Kerr Kneale Productions (L-R): from Eine Eingeweckte Kindheit (1990); Example of juvenilia from Judith Kerr’s Creatures: a celebration of her life and work (London: HarperCollins, 2013) Judith Kerr

83 years ago, 9 year-old Judith Kerr and her family were forced to flee their Berlin home from the Nazis. It is not as a German Jewish refugee we tend to think of Judith Kerr, but our national treasure, the acclaimed English children’s author and illustrator of The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) and the series of Mog picturebooks (1970 – 2002). In 2012 she was awarded an OBE for her worldwide service to children’s literature and holocaust education. This summer she received the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. The semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit published in 1971, the first volume of her Out of the Hitler Time trilogy (1971 – 1978) is a text on the National Curriculum both in England and Germany (if you haven’t read it then do watch the Seven Stories film below). Despite such fame and recognition, little attention is paid to the remarkable fiction, both textual and pictorial, Kerr produced as a child before and during her experience in exile from Nazi Germany.

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One of Kerr’s childhood drawings that appears in Creatures.

For Judith Kerr, as a child, drawing, painting and writing offered her a safe space in which she might play and map her experience of exile. As an adult it became the way in which she could provide testament to the hardships the Nazi regime inflicted not only on her parents, but also the Jewish children who, unlike Kerr and her brother, did not have the chance to escape and begin a new life. Kerr has always displayed an interest in finding light and beauty in the world, not only because it suits the philosophy she adopted as a young child, but also because she wishes in literature to create the lives of the children who did not survive the Holocaust. As she explained in a speech she gave in Berlin in 1990 titled Eine Eingeweckte Kindheit (A Pickled Childhood):

But there were of course other children. Children, whose “right” world
like mine, disappeared then with a single blow. Children, who, like me,
wrote essays, played in gardens, children who rowed boats and conversed
with their parents. Thousands, tens of thousands of children, whose new
world did not, like for me, mean a new life, but rather misery, fear and death.
[my translation]

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is Kerr’s story, but it is also the story that one of those children might have led and transcribed to paper; not one of darkness, fear and death, but rather ultimately one of colour, light and life. Her gift to the nation – her juvenilia and manuscripts – held at Seven Stories makes it possible to share her experiences at several levels. Seven Stories has made a wonderful film on the Judith Kerr Collection with children from a local school, many of whom have also come to this country as refugees. Part of it can be seen here.

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Artwork for When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

After showing this film, there was then the chance to view a travelling exhibition by the Migration Museum Project in the library. Graham Blythe, Head of Office of the European Commission in Scotland, then gave a poignant and enlightening talk on migration in and across the (still!) 28 member states of the EU. Dr Tina Gharavi, Senior Lecturer in Digital Media/Film, spoke of and showed an excerpt from her film I am Nasrine, a BAFTA-nominated feature film on the plight of an Iranian girl who manages to reach a Britain that proves not the end but only the beginning of her journey seeking refuge. The talk by Senior Lecturer in Law Dr Maria-Teresa Gil-Bazo on refugees and migrants in search of protection in Europe elicited a fascinating discussion, one that I think all present hopes may continue.

In short, a very interesting and inspiring event to begin this academic year. My sincere thanks are owed to Professor Kim Reynolds for inviting me to take part, Philippa Perry, Judith Kerr, Sarah Lawrance, Kristopher Mckie and all of the amazing Seven Stories team for their help with and support of my research – may I highly recommend the David Almond Fellowships (applications open for next year until 1 December 2016) that provide students the chance to spend several days exploring a Collection of interest and relevance to their research (Seven Stories holds archival material from c.1930 to the present day by over 250 leading authors, illustrators and publishers, from Enid Blyton to Philip Pullman). I am very grateful to Professor Maria Nikolajeva, Dr Zoe Jaques, David Whitley and the other wonderful members of the Cambridge Centre for Children’s Literature all very kindly continue to support my research. Tanya Leuthe at the International Youth Library in Munich provided me information on What Do You Have in Your Suitcase, some of which you can find on their blog. The event was hosted by Past Present Ltd.

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Judith Kerr is remarkable and continues to work at the age of 93. (Kerr Kneale Productions Ltd.)
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