WASHINGTON — At first, it was only a bedtime story for her 2-year-old daughter. Judith Kerr’s husband, a screenwriter, was away on a film shoot, and the two of them were left at home, where they amused themselves with occasional trips to see the big cats at the zoo.
Thinking they could use a little company, Mrs. Kerr began crafting a story of a friendly tiger who arrives at their home in London and joins them for tea — gulping it down straight from the kettle, devouring their sandwiches, buns, biscuits, and cake, and drinking ‘‘all the water in the tap’’ before politely excusing himself to leave.
‘‘Talk the tiger,’’ her daughter said each night, asking to hear the story once more.
Mrs. Kerr later wrote down the bedtime tale, added brightly colored illustrations, and at age 45 became a published author. Her 1968 debut, ‘‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea,’’ sold more than 5 million copies and made her one of the most beloved children’s writers in Britain, where reviewer Antonia Fraser called the volume ‘‘a dazzling first book’’ that would make children ‘‘scream with delicious pleasure at the dangerous naughtiness’’ of the plot.
But then, as adults sometimes do, her older readers began to see a far deeper, darker meaning in ‘‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea.’’ Mrs. Kerr had arrived in England at age 12 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Was the tiger a symbol for the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police force that she had evaded in her childhood? Did it represent the sexual revolution of the 1960s or perhaps the countercultural movement sweeping through staid old England?
For decades, her response was always the same: No. The book was simply about a tiger who came to tea.
Mrs. Kerr, who went on to write and illustrate a best-selling series about a forgetful cat named Mog, as well as a semiautobiographical children’s novel — ‘‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’’ — about her family’s World War II escape, was 95 when she died Wednesday at her home in London. Her publisher, HarperCollins U.K., announced the death in a statement but did not give a cause.
Ms. Kerr (pronounced car) wrote more than 30 books that were translated into 20 languages and, in recent years, was an elegant and witty fixture of the English literary circuit. Her guiltiest pleasure, she told the Guardian one week before her death, was ‘‘drinking dregs of the whisky from the night before"; her biggest disappointment, she added, was ‘‘not having longer legs.’’
Trained as an artist, she often spent months agonizing over her illustrations, redoing her ink work or erasing the lines of a colored pencil to precisely render the legs of a frog and the handlebars of a bicycle.
She was frequently accompanied in her work by a succession of pet cats — notably the mischievous Mog, who sat on her lap, pushing the paintbrush with her nose, and delighted in licking the hair of Mrs. Kerr’s sleeping daughter.
The cat was featured in more than a dozen books, beginning with ‘‘Mog the Forgetful Cat’’ (1970), Mrs. Kerr’s second storybook. It was followed by ‘‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’’ (1971), inspired by a comment Mrs. Kerr’s 8-year-old son made after watching ‘‘The Sound of Music’’: ‘‘Now we know what it was like when Mummy was a little girl.’’
‘‘It was so different from the way they grew up that I wanted them to know about it,’’ she later said.
Named for a favorite toy that Mrs. Kerr left behind when she fled her home in Berlin, ‘‘Pink Rabbit’’ is often cited as a leading work of children’s literature about World War II.
Mrs. Kerr wrote two sequels to her ‘‘Pink Rabbit’’ book, forming a coming-of-age trilogy known as ‘‘Out of the Hitler Time’’: ‘‘Bombs on Aunt Dainty,’’ originally titled ‘‘The Other Way Round’’ (1975), and ‘‘A Small Person Far Away’’ (1978).