When you have little children, you really need to love the books that they love, since they like to read them over, and over, and over again. And again. You will end up knowing the words off by heart, and they will correct you if you try to cut any corners by skipping a few sentences here and there. There are a few books that have really stood the test of time in our house, and remain loved by all, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea is one of them. This beautifully illustrated gem is oozing with gentle intrigue and humour that has kept it a favourite for over 50 years.
The tiger in question interrupts a perfectly ordinary afternoon in a perfectly ordinary house, where a little girl, Sophie, and her mother are having tea. There is something about the unremarkable nature of this scenario that makes it so familiar and relatable to most children. The idea of something exciting arriving on their doorstep out of the blue - especially a talking tiger - fuels the imagination and builds the mystery of what’s going to happen next. Since Sophie and her Mummy have impeccable manners, they invite him to join them. This is not a scary, roaring tiger, but he is hungry and it isn’t long before his tiger tendencies start to show. He proceeds to eat and drink them out of house and home, while Sophie’s Mummy empties all the cupboards and the fridge. He even drinks all the water in the taps. Details like this show a wonderful understanding of the way that children think - the concept of things being “all gone” is one of the first that toddlers learn, so to apply it through a story in this way is perfection.
There are so many details scattered throughout the book that reinforce the non-threatening role of the tiger - even though he is eating all before him, Sophie is pictured cuddling his huge head and playing with his tail. In every scene he is beaming at her, not a tooth in sight, and Sophie, though she doesn’t speak a word, is beaming right back on every page. When he does leave, the story turns back to the family - now what are they going to do? What about Daddy’s supper! This is one way in which the book shows its age, but to criticise it for its portrayal of gender roles that at the time reflected the social norm would be to miss the point. More treats are in store for Sophie. Not only can she not have her bath, she and her parents get to go out in the dark and walk down the road to a cafe, in her pyjamas to have a supper of champions, sausages and chips and ice cream! These small adventures and deviations from the usual routine are the treasures of childhood memories.
This is a wonderful combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary, all contained within the safety of home and family, components that are always relevant in children’s books. The next day, Sophie and her mummy go to the supermarket and buy a hilariously tiny tin of tiger food, in case the tiger comes back any time, but he never does - he’s all gone. My only advice is - buy a board book version of this one, it will last longer!
By Susannah Sweetman - writer and mum of 4.