After weeks of reading the same story every nap- and bed-time, one’s recitation becomes automatic, leaving the mind free to ponder the text on deeper levels.
Case in point: The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the classic million+ selling British children’s book by Judith Kerr.
At first glance, the gender roles portrayed here are a little grating. Faced with empty cupboards and recently devoured tea, the mother in the story opines, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve got nothing for Daddy’s supper, the tiger has eaten it all.” Daddy’s supper? Isn’t it the whole family’s supper? When the father returns home—and I do love his hat-off, ‘ta da!’ pose in the doorway—his wife and daughter describe the recent feline visitation, arms wide in alarm. Father, resourceful in the face of voracious wild cat incursions, makes the rather obvious suggestion that they all go out and eat at a café, a proposal the text frames as heroically decisive. To a café they therefore repair, where—in a sentence that puzzled me greatly as a child—they “had a lovely supper of sausages and chips and ice cream.” (Why would you want ice cream with your sausages and chips, asked juvenile I?) The next day, Sophie and her mother take up the female part and restock the pantry.
Too harsh? There are some pluses for the XX chromosome column. It must be acknowledged that Sophie and her mother greet the arrival of a talking tiger on their doorstep with admirable equanimity. Sophie’s mother wins all of the savoir-faire points for responding to the tiger’s rapid consumption of her well-laden luncheon table with a solicitous, ‘Would you like some tea?’ (Did she attend a finishing school, one wonders?) Equally, neither character shows any sign of panic as the tiger prowls around the kitchen consuming every available comestible, not least items in packets and tins (a detail which leads us to ask whether they not only declined to resist, but actually cooperated with the intruder). And, distressed though she is at the loss of their supper, Sophie’s mother is calm enough in the face of crisis to attempt to give Sophie a bath and change her into her pyjamas immediately the tiger departs. Perhaps a touch of hand-waving is forgivable in light of the day’s challenging events.
Lastly, if Sophie’s daddy didn’t propose a treat at the local caff he would actually have no lines in the book at all, so he’s not exactly a dominant persona. And Sophie and her mum have the presence of mind to stock up on tiger food, suggesting they feel equal to the task should their stripy visitor stage a repeat performance.
Long story short (or, in fact, short story shorter): showing its age a bit, however the overt Dad-Will-Know-What-To-Do-ism is counterbalanced by a subtle Women-Remaining-Calm-in-a-Crisis vibe.
Further titles in the How Lit Grads’ Minds Wander When Putting Their Children To Sleep series include ‘Subliminal Christian Messages in The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘; ‘The insecure passive-aggression of ‘You Are My Sunshine’; and the soothing bedtime metaphor at work in ‘Rock-a-bye-baby’ (synopsis: tree/wind/falling = parent’s arms/rocking/putting to bed, no?).