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Julia Donaldson: the magic of The Gruffalo lady

PUBLISHED: 11:28 21 June 2018 | UPDATED: 11:32 21 June 2018

Julia Donaldson. Photo: Alex Rumford

Julia Donaldson. Photo: Alex Rumford

© Alex Rumford.

Her stories are as familiar to parents and grandparents as they are to the generations of youngsters for whom they are required bedtime reading. As stage adaptation of some of her favourites head to the region, we discover the magic behind Julia Donaldson.

What The Ladybird Heard. Photo: Robert WorkmanWhat The Ladybird Heard. Photo: Robert Workman

“Really you’re just creating stories,” says Julia Donaldson of whether there is any magic formula that have seen her books become much loved bedtime favourites for generations of children.

Famed for Room on the Broom, The Stickman, The Snail and the Whale and, of course, The Gruffalo, to name but a few, the former children’s laureate is something of a literary superstar. And if anyone knows how to hold the attention of even the most fidgety tots, it’s her.

Young children, their parents and grandparents know her books by heart, with ‘again!’ being the typical response from youngsters for whom Donaldson’s tales never seem to lose their charm.

Never distinguishing between writing for children and adults, she adds. “The Brothers Grimm didn’t collect stories especially for children. I’m pretty sure they were just folk stories and that they were for everyone. Everyone loves stories.”

They certainly do and the author, who turns 70 this year, has been incredibly successful at telling them. Her cast of dancing rhyming chorus of giants and snails, witches and Gruffalos saw her become the first author to record UK sales of more than £10m for five consecutive years, making her the fourth bestselling writer in British history.

Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, with year two youngsters from St John's infant school at the Millennium Library in Norwich.
Photo: Bill SmithChildren's Laureate Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, with year two youngsters from St John's infant school at the Millennium Library in Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith

Does she sometimes look back to the beginning, to her first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, and think how far she has come to sell the millions of books?

“A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, I had written it as a song years before, when I was in my twenties and wrote for television,” she said. “Around the same time as Playschool was on television, there was another ‘Watch with Mother’ programme called Play Board. I wrote songs for the show based on Aesop’s Fables and then came A Squash and a Squeeze.

“It’s a traditional story and the song went on to be used a lot on children’s television. It’s on a BBC album of children’s songs and was heard by a book publisher who listened to it with her children. Years later, she approached me to write it as a book. So, that’s how I made the jump from writing songs for television to writing books. And now look where we are!”

She has since written more than 100 books and plays for children and teenagers, including most famously The Gruffalo, a character that has become a mega-selling brand in his own right.

She was 51 when The Gruffalo was published. Since then her work rate has been phenomenal — A Squash and a Squeeze, Monkey Puzzle, The Smartest Giant in Town, Tabby McTat, Zog, The Scarecrow’s Wedding, on and on the list of her books goes, about half of them with illustrator Alex Scheffler.

The Gruffalo�s Child. Photo: Tall StoriesThe Gruffalo�s Child. Photo: Tall Stories

A number of Julia’s books have been adapted for the stage and this summer The Gruffalo’s Child, The Snail and the Whale and new production of What The Ladybird Heard are heading to theatres across the region.

“I have very vivid memories of going to the theatre as a child,” Julia recalls her own childhood experience of live theatre. “Just going into that building and the lights going down, and then this world coming alive in front of you – it was something very magical.”

At the age of eight her passion for theatre was cemented when her parents took her to see a play-come-ballet that a friend of theirs was conducting the orchestra for. “It was called Where the Rainbow Ends and at the end it was a tradition that the principal ballet dancer would call out children’s names and they had to stand up and say that they would fight dragons and help the rainbow fairies,” she remembers.

“Unbeknown to me the conductor had put him up to asking if there were any little girls called Julia in the audience. I stood up – I was the only one – and said “yes, I’ll help!” I was embarrassed but thrilled, and then I got taken backstage and I saw Willow the Wisp in her dressing room and there was the smell of greasepaint – I was completely stage struck from then on!”

What the Ladybird Heard features music with live instruments, a nod to her own past as a budding singer-songwriter, when she used to busk with her husband of almost 46 years, Malcolm, who she met at university. It is something she is passionate about.

Children's author Julia Donaldson. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA PhotosChildren's author Julia Donaldson. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Photos

“I’ve done three books of my own songs and I insisted on real musicians. With each song book, we held a performance - I was singing with about six musicians on stage – I loved that! I do really like live instruments; it’s a very nice feature of the show as it’s great for children to see and hear live music. In fact, when I started writing for Play Away and Playschool it was always with live musicians and with Play Away the band was visible on stage. Nowadays, you don’t see so much of that.”

Where she gets the ideas for her stories is a question she is often asked and What the Ladybird Heard is an example how inspiration can strike.

“I was walking in the countryside with my youngest son and we were reminiscing about when he was a little boy,” she recalls. “At an age when children are just learning to read, his teacher had given the class an exercise matching up animal noises with animal pictures, but because most of the children couldn’t yet read, the activity went comically wrong.

“The hen hissed instead of clucking and the dog meowed and so on. I thought it would be lovely to use this idea of animals making the wrong noises in a story somehow and my son, now a young man, suggested animals playing a trick on the farmer. Then I hit upon the idea of two thieves trying to steal the farmer’s fine prize cow.”

A familiar theme in many of her books is a character with a small voice outwitting the bigger and louder ones. “I think the idea of a very little character outwitting bigger and brawnier ones really appeals,” she ponders. “I think it’s a very common theme in stories for children and adults. I did try in Zog though, to make him the biggest and clumsiest dragon there is.”

What The Ladybird Heard. Photo: Robert WorkmanWhat The Ladybird Heard. Photo: Robert Workman

There was another reason behind the tiny main character in What the Ladybird Heard though — the fact that Ladybird rhymes with heard, with rhyming an integral part of Julia’s work.

But this doesn’t always translate. When the book was published in America, “Ladybird” became “Ladybug”. “I had to change quite a lot for the American version of the book,” she laughs. “Apparently, police cars don’t go Nee Nawh there either!”

• The Gruffalo’s Child is at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on June 22-24.

• What The Ladybird Heard is at Southend Palace Theatre on June 30-July 1 and Norwich Playhouse on July 3-8.

• The Snail and the Whale is at Lowestoft Marina Theatre on September 26-27 and Norwich Playhouse on November 22-December 2.

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