HarperCollins Children’s (2008) (first published 1971) | 246 pages
Technically, I’m a few years late with reading this. At university I took a children’s literature module where this was one of the key texts, and each of us were divided into groups and made to do a presentation of a particular book (or books) as part of our final mark. Of course, I was put into the group looking at When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and considering how important the mark actually was towards our final grade, yadda yadda yadda, I definitely should have read it.
But I didn’t. I don’t remember much about the presentation, or why I didn’t end up reading the book in the end (I’ve largely blocked it from memory, considering public speaking was always traumatic) but I remember instead chomping at the bit when the opportunity to look at John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as a comparison came up. Boy is one of my favourite books, and I was certainly eager to include it in my degree somehow. The way things happened then meant that actually, stupidly, I never actually finished Pink Rabbit. (Don’t tell my lecturers.) I mean, I knew enough about it to contribute to the presentation, and I certainly read the first few chapters or so, but my main contribution came with speaking about Boy.
The thing is, I was never particularly enthralled by the idea of Pink Rabbit. I think a lot of my reluctance came from the knowledge that it’s mostly autobiographical; Judith Kerr lead a very similar – if not identical – life to her character Anna, and I found it quite bizarre that she hadn’t simply made it a biographical piece. All the details are there: Anna goes through the same experience Judith did as a refugee, with the same famous father and the same Jewish background. I recall us looking into why Kerr had decided to write the novel only semi-autobiographically and remember her stating that things like dialogue and small details would be fictitious anyway due to how long ago it was, so she made the decision to novelise the whole thing. But I don’t know… it bugged me a bit – still does, guiltily – how the character is called Anna yet other names stayed the same; how the details of the journey are accurate yet portrayed in novel form rather than biography.
Of course, this is a children’s book, and was written as a way to inform and educate children on Kerr’s experiences as a refugee. It’s entirely not an issue whether it is autobiographical or not – in fact, it’s quite petty for a twenty-something to be moaning about that, isn’t it? This is a very personal story presented to us completely selflessly, and the amount of positivity portrayed within the characters’ stories is inspiring. Not a single character is ever gloomy for long, and Anna herself is always saying how much she loves being a refugee. Sure, they all go through some tough times, both on a large scale (moving to a completely new country) and a smaller scale (the futon bed breaking), but optimism is demonstrated within every chapter. The knowledge also that the main protagonist survives the whole ordeal, and the fact the writing is very kid-friendly also helps this along.
Saying that, however, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading it. Being as petty as I am, I found the kid-friendly writing to be too bland. I wanted more detail; I wanted the grittier perspective of being a refugee, not the extremely romanticised view that Anna gives us. Of course, I’m reading the wrong book, but I can’t help but feel that surely, something really bad had to have happened? To have everything go almost exactly to plan, and for everything to be okay in the end seems rather unrealistic for that time. How did they escape to Switzerland without being tracked? Did Anna and her brother really become that good at speaking French? Were they seriously able to get a flat to live in – just like that? I wanted the parents’ perspectives. Anna’s mum seemed on edge a lot of the time, but Anna dismissed it always. Even their lack of income wasn’t really a big deal, and Anna’s father was hardly ever negative about anything. I suppose it demonstrates a strength in the characters that I can’t comprehend. The situation they were in is far too scary for me to have been able to look on it positively.
It’s quite an incredible book. And yet, it just didn’t do it for me. I was glad when it ended, and I have far too many nitpicks with it to give it anything more than a pathetic three stars. I initially was so glad to be rid of it that I ranked it two stars on Goodreads, but thinking about it, it deserves a lot more merit than I could possibly give it credit for. Judith Kerr is an exceptionally optimistic author, and in circumstances where we would all give up and be miserable, it’s inspiring to see the other side
The only question left to ask is: what even happened to poor Pink Rabbit?