Judith Kerr is one of the great children’s book writers of our time. A master of the art of the picture book, but also an adept artisan of the chapter book, Kerr has been a household name for years. Why, then, 47 years after the masterwork that is The Tiger who came to Tea and, perhaps more importantly, 13 years after the final Mog title has Kerr revived her feline heroine for the 2015 audience?
As we must all be painfully aware by now, Mog’s Christmas Calamity is a collaboration between Kerr, HarperCollins and Sainsbury’s which uses the Mog character – last seen in Goodbye Mog (2002) where she died – to spread the word that #Christmasisforsharing. The book, which ties in with the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert and can only be found in Sainsbury’s stores, is also raising money for the literacy campaign Read on. Get on. of which HarperCollins is a founding member*. So far, so confusing.
Ann-Janine Murtagh, executive publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, was recently interviewed by Charlotte Eyre in The Bookseller describing Mog’s journey back from the underworld. Apparently Kerr wrote the most recent adventure in “about three months” and probably wouldn’t have written a new Mog book “if it hadn’t been for the literacy campaign.” This is where I find myself wondering about how to feel about this book.
First off, this is a Kerr. Much like a Dickens or a Picasso, it has an inherent value, simply by virtue of the fact that its creator is a brilliant artist. However, it is simultaneously seeped in a consumerist and artificial atmosphere which is almost asphyxiating, only to then be redeemed by its charitable nature. How does one reconcile the fact that Mog’s Christmas Calamity is obviously a stunt for Sainsbury’s to sell more products, with the fact that it is a genuinely good book?
Recently, the reality television programme The Apprentice gave its participants a task to create and sell a picture book in about 2 days. Understandably, people who write picture books for a living were uncomfortable with their art being considered a ‘product’ and an easy one to make at that. So when Murtagh reveals that Kerr wrote her book in three months rather than the usual “couple of years” with the direct aim to boost Sainsbury’s sales (amongst others), part of me is itching to ask what the difference is.
The Bookseller has been keen to remind us of Mog’s Christmas Calamity’s great success. It has even had a couple of its own ebulletins about how it has remained top of the charts for so long. And yet, despite discussing the picture book, the accompanying image has consistently been the animated Mog from the tie-in Sainsbury’s advert. The two are conflated in a way that makes the book synonymous with the advert, but also makes the advert lose its consumerist nature and become merely a ‘made for TV’ adaptation of the book.
It is likely, therefore, that the discomfort I, and certain others, feel about the ulterior motives behind Mog’s Christmas Calamity stems from the contrived separation of the two. For someone who is so passionate about the interplay between image and text in picture books, I’ve found it oddly difficult to accept that the book and the film feed off each other. They are one creative piece, promoting both the supermarket, prosaically, and the love of reading which lies at the heart of the entire campaign.
An article was published this morning about how the Christmas advert has become a social phenomenon, bigger and louder than ever. We can’t ignore the fact that at the heart of this book is Sainsbury’s desire to make their Christmas advert memorable, a desire to “publish a book at the heart of its campaign.” Perhaps, however, this merely makes Mog a social phenomenon too, and it is undeniable that it takes a good book by a great artist to make that happen.
*To confirm, I have no issues with people raising money for charities they are stakeholders in, as long as it is a good cause.