How many Julia Donaldson books does your child own? Our latest count was 14 plus a Stick Man doll, costume and DVD that we have seen too many times to mention yet never get bored.
With her knack for a sharp rhyme, for spinning an epic yarn and for creating the most memorable of characters, the former folk singer and songwriter has become one of most loved and prolific children’s authors of all time.
Her first book, A Squash And A Squeeze, was published almost 25 years ago and today around 80 more titles sit on bookshelves beside it (Julia herself has lost count), without taking into account her 120-odd educational titles. They sell in their droves, all across the world, have won countless awards and been turned into stage shows, animated films and even walking trails.
The former Children’s Laureate turned 70 a few days ago yet is still as busy as ever, with multiple new books on the go, and a dogged commitment to her charity work and lively performances for children, often with her husband Malcolm in tow.
Whatever she does seems to have a magic about it – what Simon Cowell would call ‘the X factor -‘ but her accomplishments are also down to sheer hard graft.
As a wordsmith, she owes some of this success to the artists who bring her text to life. While Julia’s enduring partnership with Axel Scheffler is probably her best known, producing classics like The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom, she’s also worked with top illustrators like Lydia Monks, David Roberts, Rebecca Cobb, Nick Sharratt and Sara Ogilvie.
Her latest collaboration is with no less than Helen Oxenbury, another legend of the picture book world who illustrated We’re Going On A Bear Hunt and So Much. Their book, The Giant Jumperee, has just been published in paperback and is a wonderful entry point into her work for younger bookworms. It tells the story of a group of animals who are frightened of a mysterious creature hiding in a burrow – only for it to be a little frog playing a joke on them.
Earlier this month, we were very lucky to have the chance to meet Julia in London for a chat about the book and much more besides. From her views on rhyming books (“Mostly I don’t like other people’s because they are really doggerel…”) to the countless foreign translations of her stories (“I’m always being told the Israeli versions are better but some are like they have been done on the back of an envelope”), it turns out she is a lively, honest and amusing lady.
Here’s what she had to say…
Where did the inspiration for The Giant Jumperee come from?
I wrote it as a play a long time ago for an educational publisher, because I was always being asked to research traditional tales and do plays based on them. It is based on an African story about a little animal playing a trick. Once The Gruffalo was published, which I’d originally conceived as a play, I thought ‘If only I’d done The Giant Jumperee as a picture book’. I had to wait and wait until the play went out of print, but there was very little rewriting required. It’s a very nice one for children to act out. I’ve always done it a lot in schools on visits.
How was it working with Helen Oxenbury for the first time?
That was really a dream come true. Because I was working with a different publisher [most of Julia’s books are published by Macmillan], I was able to ask for someone I don’t normally have access to. It’s a bit like having a house and a couple of holiday cottages – you can try something different. It’s lovely to work with people you have always admired.
How did the process work?
It was a little bit different. Normally the words and pictures are relayed through the publisher, but Puffin did arrange a meeting before Helen had done any work. I don’t think it made much difference because she had an image in her mind – she wanted it to be very English, even though we don’t have elephants and bears. It’s very pastoral.
The story is the opposite of The Gruffalo because in that book, the mouse makes up The Gruffalo and it turns out he exists. But in The Giant Jumperee, they all think it exists and it is actually a little frog. I had this idea that you could show each of the animals imagining what the Giant Jumperee is, with each one different, but Helen wanted the child’s imagination to do it.
It looks beautiful and I like the way she is more realistic compared to a lot of modern illustrators. They can be very stylised. I like it to some extent but it was lovely having someone more painterly.
It’s a very different style to Axel Scheffler’s work, isn’t it?
Yes, and even more from Lydia Monks or David Roberts. Most illustrators have their way of doing eyes or a mouth. Axel has the goggle eyes, some do a dot. You know you can’t tell them to do it differently, because I can’t ask them to change their style any more than they would ask me to.
When you come up with a new book, do you work with the illustrator ahead of time to come up with preliminary ideas?
I tend to bounce ideas off my editor. I never speak to Axel beforehand. With Lydia, she might say ‘I’d like to do a book with mermaids’ and that will get me going. With Axel, the editor said two books ago that he doesn’t want to do any more modern world stories like Tabby McTat, he wants to do mythical creatures and things like that. That’s why I went back to Zog and wrote Zog and the Flying Doctors. Sometimes the illustrator will influence me in that way but not the storyline. I don’t want to be discouraged if I have a storyline that I think will work.
How does your creative process work? Will you have a few stories bubbling away at one time?
I’ll have ideas but I’ll only work on one at a time. When I wrote songs, the BBC would commission two at a time and I’d get as far as I could with one then go to the other. I never do that with books, except at the moment because I am compiling a poetry anthology.
A lot of younger readers wouldn’t know about your songwriting background, writing folk music and children’s songs for shows like Play Days. Do you think that prepared you well for the rhyming books?
Yes, because the songs usually have a verse and a chorus. I became quite adept at the structure of it all and the music helps to be lilting and choose the right words.
So you’ve learned all the tricks?
Yes, but I think all people used to be able to do write verse. Nowadays children don’t have the same exposure. When I was little, there was a programme called Listen With Mother on the radio and there were always two nursery rhymes and a story. And in primary school, we sang a hymn every day. So we all knew a hundred rhyming, scanning hymns. In Victorian times, every self-respecting person could turn out a poem which rhymed and scanned perfectly. Nowadays they don’t seem to be able to.
You campaigned heavily against the library closures a few years ago. Do you think children aren’t getting the access to books and reading that they used to?
What’s so sad about a lot of library closures is that there were trained staff to recommend books and expose children to different things. Teachers can’t possibly have the time to know everything that is out there. While volunteers have saved some libraries, and some may have expertise, there’s no continuity. And some unfortunately aren’t very good and don’t even understand the Dewey Decimal system.
What do you think about the lack of female lead characters in picture books?
I don’t know if there is or not. Quite honestly, you get all this movement towards having strong females but if you do that and have dopey men, all the men complain and say they are disempowered. So I never bother about trying to please people. I write what I want to write and sometimes there will be strong women.
If you think of Stick Man, it was just going to be a man. The Highway Rat just has to be a man. I’m not going to change it for the sake of being politically correct. I try hard to have female characters. When I wrote Zog, I really wanted a female character, I wanted to write a book about dragons and I liked an idea of Madam Dragon, which meant the hero had to be male.
In the Giant Jumperee I made sure I had roughly the same of each gender. Sometimes the names influence it though. When I wrote The Detective Dog originally, she was going to belong to Rose, with ‘rings on her fingers and specs on her nose’. Then the editor asked if the dog could belong to a child and I thought of various girls and boys names – and the one that worked best was Peter because it rhymed with ‘could have been neater’.
I’ve got a sequel to The Detective Dog coming out. Well, not a sequel exactly – it’s a different dog, a hospital dog that visits people. It’s a female dog again and I got Rose into that one and the specs on her nose.
When is that due out?
I think next year, I think Sara is just starting it. She had other things in the queue, I wrote it quite a while ago. I wrote it because when Zog and the Flying Doctors came out, we had the launch at the Evalina Children’s Hospital. There was a picture on the wall of the hospital dog and I found out that the owner lived very near me. I went and met them, and went on a walk round the hospital with them.
I would have liked to use the dog’s real name but she was called Nahla and it didn’t rhyme very well. She’s called Dot instead and I’m dedicating the book to Nahla. I dedicated the third Ladybird book to the Queen’s two corgis as they are in it, but sadly they have both died now. I hope the Queen has seen my book, I keep trying to get it to her! I got a letter from Camilla’s lady-in-waiting asking me to do something for charity and I wrote back asking her to tell Charles about my book.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Yes, but I don’t regard it as writer’s block. I regard it as I’m in a phase of not writing and when an idea comes, I write. When I’m writing, I think ‘I can’t do it this time’. Malcolm tells me ‘You say that every book’. It is excruciating difficult to write the stories.
Do you have a particular place you write?
Yes and no. I have a study and a desk, but I’ve written things on the train. The Cook and The King, which came out last month, I wrote when I was in Australia and New Zealand. About 90 per cent goes on in my head when I’m out for a walk or in the bath or something. Then when I do have a desk or computer, I don’t have to think.
Do you have a favourite book or is it ever-changing?
It’s ever-changing. Of the Axel books I have a soft-spot for The Highway Rat, because he is villainous but endearing at the same time. Then the ones I most enjoyed writing are the Princess Mirror Belle books. The girl is quite subversive, she is a slightly more annoying version of Pippi Longstocking. I enjoyed writing those tremendously.
Are some more of a labour of love?
Yes, but even those Mirror Belle books were hard going. There had to be a storyline, different scenes and illusions to different fairytales. I set myself quite a difficult task. It’s not always like that. I have an alphabet book coming out later this year and I just wrote that in a morning because it doesn’t rhyme and I had a good idea.
The Gruffalo is 20 next year. When you were writing it, did you have any idea of how successful it might be?
Not at all, because it was maybe quite ground breaking because at that time. A lot of picture books were like Guess How Much I Love You. My editor said they were a bit like medicine at bedtime, to tell shy children just to smile and people would smile back, and if you read it to them three times a day, they would make friends. The Gruffalo was a rhyming, adventure story and that wasn’t really in favour. I didn’t think it would get a publisher even. But maybe because it was something new, it got picked up.
Axel won an award recently and spoke very strongly about Brexit and how if that had been in place in his youth, he wouldn’t have come to the UK and had his partnership with you. Do you have concerns about how it might affect our publishing industry?
Yes, because we are already pretty insular and a bit resistant to European styles of art. The more we can be exposed to a variety, the better. Picture books are, or should be, a child’s first art gallery. Of course, you can still work with people from other places, but it might be a bit less easy.
Do you feel confident about the future of picture books?
I wouldn’t be worried. Even if sales fell a bit, the amount being published compared to 30 years ago is tremendous. I don’t think it was the norm to read to your child every day back then. People are saying, ‘Isn’t it terrible that one in so many parents don’t read to their child’. But I am very aware that the postman, the taxi driver and the doctor all know my books and that shows they are reading to their children, it’s not just a middle-class thing.
Yes, children do get plonked in front of a television more than I’d like and they do like gadgets. But there’s nothing like sitting on a parent’s knee, getting attention and reading together.
The Giant Jumperee by Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury is out now. £6.99 (paperback), Puffin.
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