A Squash and a Squeeze: Sharing Stories with Julia Donaldson
Julia Donaldson is in Newcastle for the opening of an exhibition of her work at Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books. Laura Fraine interviewed Julia for Books for Keeps.
Despite having been consulted throughout the curatorial process, Julia Donaldson arrived from Glasgow today to find her Seven Stories exhibition, ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’, full of surprises. “I think people imagine that I know everything about the books, but actually coming to an exhibition like this and seeing the original sketches and even the original artwork – because when I’m sent the artwork by the publisher, I’m just sent a photocopy, which obviously isn’t the same thing – is very exciting. I’d love to come back and really study it.”
She says she could not be more delighted with the exhibition which collects 17 years of her work beginning with A Squash and a Squeeze published in 1993. In fact, this picture book was originally a song, written in 1976 for the BBC children’s programme, Play School. In the exhibition we see the commissioning letter offering Julia £18 for her work. There is also original artwork by Nick Sharratt for Toddle Waddle, sketches by Axel Sheffler and plenty of correspondence between writer, illustrator and publisher, which uncovers the private side of publishing.
Julia’s influence is clearly all over this exhibition. The big interests she has mentioned in relation to her role as Children’s Laureate are all here. A brightly decorated stage and racks full of fantastic costumes from the Highway Rat to Zog encourage children to perform. A jukebox plays her songs next to a note saying that the three books of songs (The Gruffalo Song and Other Songs; Room on the Broom and Other Songs; The Gruffalo’s Child and Other Songs) are her proudest achievements. There is a theme running through the exhibition of sign language and finger signing – part of her commitment to promoting stories for deaf children.
I ask about her other commitments in relation to the Children’s Laureate post; a two-year stint which she is halfway through. She says she has been incredibly busy. “On the drama front (because that’s one of my big things) I’ve been writing lots of short plays and sketches, which will be published next year as a scheme to help children learn to read. I really think they learn to read through reading play scripts better than they do reading ordinary books. I’m also working on a website, which is going to help teachers dramatise stories. I’ve been visiting lots of libraries and every time I go to a library, the class that is in has to perform to me. So I’m really trying to encourage children as much as I can to perform.”
The other major aspect to her library visits has been lobbying on behalf of libraries. “Any time I’ve been invited to comment about libraries or write things for the press about libraries, I’ve done that. I’ve added my voice to the library cause. I’ve been to see the libraries minister and I’ve been to see the leader of the opposition. I’ve been really trying to do my bit.”
“I have to say I felt up against a brick wall with Ed Vaizey, the libraries minister. He just said he was very positive about libraries and didn’t share the opinion that they were being decimated. He would not accept that this wasn’t just an opinion, if you think ‘decimated’ means one in ten going, which is just about the case [with libraries] now. At the same time I do feel that now there’s some galvanising of support. There’s a bigger awareness in the whole population about what’s happening to libraries, so I think all of that campaigning is worth it, even if sometimes it can be a bit discouraging.”
Ed Vaizey dealt with, we address the other 800-pound gorilla in the room. Unsurprisingly, an enormous model of The Gruffalo forms the exhibition’s centrepiece. Julia says she is happy with The Gruffalo branding on lunchboxes, pyjamas and the like. This has been “handled sensitively” and has helped finance the two Gruffalo films (Room on the Broom will be the third picture, out this Christmas). Yet it is clear that The Gruffalo’s success overshadows some of her other work. “When a new book comes out, I suppose I would like it if that book got some individual attention. It would be nice if they each had their bite; if each one got its proper turn.”
Care has been taken to ensure The Gruffalo does not dominate the exhibition. The best parts of this show are the interactive spaces – a Wendy house filled with animals from A Squash and a Squeeze; a cave in which to create your own artwork like Cave Baby. But if I have one complaint it is that, with the work from more than 20 books included in this show, it is itself quite a squash and a squeeze. All of the best-loved characters are here, but some of my favourites, including Tabby McTat, Stick Man and The Snail and the Whale, get merely a nod of recognition rather than the lavish attention they deserve.
A Squash and a Squeeze: Sharing Stories with Julia Donaldson opened on 17 March 2012 and runs until 13 February 2013 at Seven Stories, Newcastle www.sevenstories.org.uk”>www.sevenstories.org.uk
Laura Fraine is a freelance journalist based in the North East.