Benji Davies’ award-winning picture books, The Storm Whale, Grandad’s Island, and The Storm Whale in Winter, are the kind of books you feel you must force on others. It is not enough just to read the book with your littles. You must then get your husband to read them. Then your friends. The lady at playgroup you know by sight only. Last week, I made my sister, who was visiting from the States, sit down and read Grandad’s Island. She finished reading, looked up and said. “I have a lump in my throat that I can’t quite swallow. This book is doing the same thing to me that listening to Cat’s in the Cradle always does.” They are also the kind of picture books that make you feel really big emotions. His books will devastate you and you will love them for it because they will also warm you, and delight you, and make you remember beautiful details from childhood long lost in the rafters of your memory. They are in a word impactful. So, when I got the chance to interview Benji, what better to talk about then the picture book that had the strongest impact on him.
Benji is the third interview in our series jointly featured on Two in a Tepee and the KidLit TV website. As you may know by now, I am talking to Two in a Tepee’s very favourite children’s picture book authors and illustrators about the picture books and characters that have had the strongest impact on their lives. Together we are exploring the power of picture books to grab hold of a person in childhood and play a role in shaping his/her life path. So let’s get going.
TiaT: Ok, Benji. Start by telling us which picture books really captured your imagination when you were a kid.
BD: There are actually very few picture books I remember from childhood. Dogger by Shirley Hughes is one. I owned a soft dog toy, so I really connected with that book. Where The Wild Things Are is very memorable with such strong imagery.
But the one that I hold the most reverence for is [Judith Kerr’s] The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
TiaT: What was it about The Tiger Who Came to Tea that still stands out? Can you remember any of the pictures or lines?
BD: It’s the last page when the girl, Sophie, has bought the tiger a big tin of tiger food and wonders if the tiger will ever come back:
“And they also bought a very big tin of Tiger Food, in case the tiger should come to tea again.”
Then the final line does it…
“But he never did.”
There is so much in those four words – it pulls you right out and dangles you, waiting indefinitely for the tiger’s return that you know will never come. I think we respect a statement like that – somehow the author has the knowledge of all time and can tell us how things pan out into eternity.
It’s odd because you’d think that you’d want the tiger to return so that they can be BFFs. Of course, the tiger would actually be a very threatening visitor, this silent unquenchable beast who’s in Sophie’s house eating everything in sight – perhaps she’s next – but instead you’re reassured by her smile and confidence, and there’s a friendly mischief in the tiger’s eyes.
There’s a sly wink to all this. We are left on the final page with an image of the tiger playing a trumpet, a trail of ‘good-byes’ snaking out of it, as he looks right out of the page at the reader over his stripy orange shoulder. It suggests that perhaps he never came at all, that this is just a story and I think for a small child that is empowering. It creates a kind of theatre where you’re in on the whole thing.
TiaT: Do you remember the first person to read the book with you?
My mum used to read me the book when I was small. She told me recently how she could never understand why I liked it so much. I think she felt it was quite an odd story. But she also said that I’d go back to it again and again and again. Writing picture books now, it’s the most rewarding thing to hear that a book is a child’s current favourite and on repeat, incessant reading. If my stories are able to replicate this trick, then I know I’m doing the right thing.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea is a widely read book and rightly placed on the classics shelf. Even so, I’ve heard some parents say the same thing as my mum, people who never knew the book as a child, only now coming to it as they read it to their own offspring; that they don’t get it, and they find the final page disappointing.
I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that has kept [this book] in high regard for me as an adult. Often I think adults can overlook the deeper layers of the words and pictures, more likely seeing a surface interpretation – perhaps they assume there is nothing beneath the surface and read it as such.
Picture books can be emotional road maps for small children. They are often our first contact with visual culture and literature and they can speak to us deeply. The world is big and children are trying to place themselves within it; picture books have the power to show the way.
TiaT: Do you think that this book in any way played a role in shaping your path toward becoming an author/illustrator?
BD: I read the book at such a young age that you could suggest that it shaped the way I felt about pictures, sparking a love of illustration and therefore leading me to draw.
It’s hard to say exactly how, but in some way, it must have impacted me. Every artist’s work is a result of the things they have seen and felt throughout their life’s experience I believe, and the way they express themselves is their interpretation of those experiences. I also believe that the stories you create are inseparable from the self and very often hold autobiography within them, however masked, whether you can recognise it yourself or not.
Michael Rosen suggested that the Tiger could be a metaphorical representation of the Nazis, a malevolent force that could be at your door any moment. But Judith Kerr says that she wrote it purely as a story for her daughter to enjoy, leaving aside the allegorical analysis as subjective interpretation.
Kerr’s family fled Germany when Hitler came to power before WWII. Whether we can read the Tiger as a veiled representation of the Nazis or not, I think the universal idea it taps into is the potential threat of this unknown and dangerous animal in the domestic setting. Through Sophie’s character we take control of the terror of the situation and pacify it – perhaps this is its power.
TiaT: Can you tell us what you working on at the moment?
BD: It’s all a bit top secret! The only thing I can say is that it will be published late next year and it will be something of a departure from the books I’ve written so far.
TiaT: You heard it here first, readers! We can’t wait, Benji. Thank you so much.