Stories should be able to bear more than one interpretation, and Judith Kerr’s books have been read in some interesting ways. But how polysemous is The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a picture book about a tiger that turns up one afternoon on a little girl called Sophie’s doorstep and consumes all the food and drink in the house? Maybe not enough to justify the theory that the mother is an alcoholic who dreams up the tiger’s visit in order to explain the vanishing of ‘all Daddy’s beer’.
If anyone’s an alcoholic or problem drinker in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, it’s the father. It’s his beer, after all; perhaps he drinks too much of it because of the stress caused by his work as a pimp (see the illustration ‘And it can’t be daddy, because he’s got his key’). He might also be violent: the mother’s anxiety when she realises that ‘I’ve got nothing for Daddy’s supper’ – my italics – gives a Frank Booth-in-Blue Velvet-like undertone to ‘Just then Sophie’s daddy came home.’ On the next page, Kerr distorts the perspective in expressionist fashion, drawing the mother on a child’s scale as the father sits listening juridically in his armchair. (It’s also interesting that the only other male figures foregrounded in the story are a leering milkman, a virginal ‘boy from the grocer’, and an apparent flasher/street masturbator the family pass on their way to the café.)
Finally, what kind of alcoholic housewife guzzles beer? Sophie’s mummy is seen with fresh flowers and a baguette. She would be more likely to favour gin or vodka.
A more plausible explanation – arrived at in the course of many, many readings – is that the father has either been laid off from an office job on account of his excessive beer drinking, or turned to the bottle in response to being laid off. Bills haven’t been paid: hence the lack of food in the house and water in the tap. When he gets home, the father has found a new job and been given a cash advance: hence the celebratory meal in the café with sausages and chips and ice cream (and for the father, but not the mother, who doesn’t have a drink, a half pint of ale). The tiger would then represent the father’s unemployment – a cause of household scarcities, but also of joy for Sophie thanks to the extra time it affords with both her parents.