As a child, Julia Donaldson dreamed of a life on stage. She recalls appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream aged 12 at the Old Vic alongside Tom Courtney and Judi Dench. An understudy fairy who got lucky, she re-enacts her star-struck gaze at her audience. She recalls a slight entanglement between her gently waving branch and the one Oberon was holding, necessitating an exit stage left instead of stage right. The sheer exhilaration she felt at that extraordinary atmosphere is an abiding memory. In adult life her passion has manifested itself in ways that probably wouldn’t have occurred to that smitten girl at the Old Vic. But that doesn’t imply any compromise.
Writing and music are inextricably linked in Julia’s life. As a child she was a member of the Children’s Opera Group and perhaps more interested in performance than the solitary business of reading. But she did love Eleanor Farjeon’s The Silver Curlew and engineered a rather touching means of making the writer’s acquaintance. ‘It was Harvest Festival time and we were giving out food to the needy elderly in the neighbourhood and I decided that Eleanor must be quite elderly, even if she wasn’t very needy, so I found out where she lived and called on her and we became good friends.’
Julia loved writing plays for her school friends, and later developed song-writing skills that propelled her, with her then boyfriend Malcolm and their two guitars, round Europe’s best busking spots. A student of Drama and French, she paints a gently self-mocking picture of herself ‘acting in weird expressionist plays in which we cycled through the audience dressed as penguins or stood in the dark reciting commercials for washing machines.’ But it was through the songs she made her mark, and photographs from the time – showing an enviably unchanged Julia and Malcolm – attest to their enjoyment of that life. ‘I wrote all these different songs – it was a mixture of singing and crowd control really. I even wrote a song in French – “Nous chanterons pour vous si vous nous donnez vos sous’’.’ This, amongst other songs, apparently generated enough income for a blissful life in Paris’s Latin Quarter. The Pasta Song is a beautifully constructed catalogue of Italian cuisine. The witty lyrics and catchy, clever tune are a splendid combination – but performed by this duo it is an unforgettable tour de force.
Later they established a successful semi-professional career on the folk club circuit, and appeared on radio programmes as diverse as Woman’s Hour and Financial World Tonight with their sharply observed, tightly crafted current affairs-related songs. There is a sense that they were not far short of hitting the big time, but with Malcolm building a medical career, and Julia combining writing and composition with bringing up three children they seem content to have continued to perform regularly on a local basis. Although they did produce a record on which the pianist is the BBC Radio 4 stalwart and their good friend, Colin Sell.
It was Julia’s skill in responding to commissions – ‘I still really love writing to order!’ – that led to work with children’s radio and television. The necessary creative discipline appealed to Julia but she is guarded when she talks of those days, perhaps slightly resenting the heavy use that was made of her, without any corresponding loyalty on the BBC’s part. She tells of having to re-establish herself with every personnel change despite her record of achievement and reliability. Malcolm’s irritation at the lack of support she was given by her employers is less restrained. Julia’s task – to write poems or songs on specific subjects – is one she relished but it wasn’t without challenges. ‘I had to write 17 songs for the Think About Science series – anything from how a pond gets polluted to looking after guinea pigs to how a bike works.’
Helping in her son’s school, she would write plays for the children, wondering vaguely about whether they could be published but never going so far as to submit them. It was an editor who recalled one of Julia’s songs from a BBC tape some 15 years previously, identifying it as a potential picture book text. She tracked Julia down and the result, having secured the services of illustrator Axel Scheffler, was the exuberant A Squash and a Squeeze. Julia describes its publication as a dream come true.
Julia justifiably resents the suggestion that there was then a lengthy gap before the publication of The Gruffalo. ‘A Squash and a Squeeze really gave me the bug. I did do other things too (more song-writing; also working for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau; plus lots of author visits), but I was very keen to be “an author”. I did have 19 books published… but because they were all ‘educational’ publications they didn’t get reviews, despite my taking every bit as much trouble over them and considering them very worthwhile.’
Not surprisingly, those 19 books include plays (including work for teenagers), retellings and rhyming texts. She wrote The Gruffalo in 1995. ‘The apparently long gap was partly due to one publisher sitting on The Gruffalo for a year and then Macmillan taking two and a half years between accepting and publishing it.’ Axel Scheffler’s evolving sketches for the monster are a great source of pride to the author, ‘and I couldn’t think of him as anything other than Axel’s Gruffalo now. Axel and I are quite independent of each other. He doesn’t tell me what to write and I respect his freedom to interpret my texts artistically. Occasionally I’ll intervene… It might be fun to work more closely with an illustrator but I don’t specially crave that.’ They are a winning team – in terms of sales and prizes – but Julia’s output inevitably outpaces Axel’s which has led her to work with other illustrators.
It is evident that Julia gives equal attention to all her work – Malcolm describes her diligence and commitment with great admiration. ‘She can spend hours and hours, sometimes a whole weekend, on a single idea,’ he says. Julia’s study, just round the corner from their welcoming family kitchen, has shelves full of well-thumbed collections of stories and fairy tales. ‘Sometimes they just give me enough of an idea for a story or a poem, but I can’t always make them work,’ she explains cheerfully. She revels in the intellectual process of pinning down her ideas and working with them until they are firmly hers. ‘Monkey Puzzle was structurally quite a difficult book – I had to work out exactly how it would make sense for children and it was quite a puzzle.’ She knows from experience that children spot a narrative glitch or weakness a mile off – and her events are never punctuated by puzzled ‘But why?’ questions. Her stories are much too thoroughly worked for that.
Malcolm is ‘a wonderful sounding board’. He is also an integral part of many of her events, undertaking the lead role in Julia’s dramatised versions of The Gruffalo or The Smartest Giant in Town, often taking annual leave from his paediatric consultant’s post to do so. And at the end of the show he’s been known to strum songs by Robbie Williams or the Beatles to his young – and by now devoted – audience. ‘I read him work in progress and agonise aloud and he actually seems to enjoy this!’ Malcolm nods energetically. ‘And when he reads something aloud I can pick up any difficulties with scansion – that’s very important to me.’ But Julia quotes from My Fair Lady – ‘she will listen very nicely/Then go out and do precisely/What she wants’ – with a smile. ‘He thought that the Gruffalo should be a real animal, not a made-up one,’ she explains. ‘But I’m always talking about my stories, and sometimes his enthusiasm protects them from cutting,’ she adds. In moments of doubt, Malcolm’s reaction and opinions reassure her.
Julia is currently in negotiation about film rights for The Gruffalo and although clearly quite fascinated and excited by the process, ‘I’d rather not be too involved; I’d rather be busy writing something totally new than rehashing something I wrote years ago.’
There are brief moments when The Gruffalo appears to assume albatross-like characteristics and Julia talks enthusiastically about her new work. She is immensely proud of the critical acclaim and sales figures for The Gruffalo but rightly wants the spotlight to fall on her other achievements too. She is especially excited about The Magic Paintbrush, delicately illustrated by Joel Stewart of whom she greatly approves. A rhyming retelling of a Chinese legend, it may surprise Gruffalo aficionados but is not out of place in the context of Julia’s vast body of pre-publication work. ‘The best thing about success is that publishers can then afford to publish more quirky, less obviously viable things, such as a book of poems or songs. I’m not desperate for every book to sell hundreds of thousands. The best and worst thing about being a children’s writer is that you don’t get much notice taken of your work. It’s hard, but it also means that people aren’t likely to pounce on you if you don’t come up with an artistically perfect bestseller every time.’
In her 20s, Julia wrote two musicals – King Grunt’s Cake and Pirate on the Pier – which enjoyed local success. She is very proud of them – the poster for the former is on her study wall – and looking forward to forthcoming productions of both. She is also enthusiastic about two plays she has written – Bombs and Blackberries about World War II and The Head in the Sand about the Romans. Drama is clearly still her great passion and she is thrilled by the handsome trade editions she’s recently received.
With a novel in the pipeline, and contracted work well into the middle of the decade, Julia continues to work hard at her craft, admitting that writing longer fiction ‘can be like getting blood from a stone’. But, armed with her huge case of props and, of course, her guitar, the regular school visits she undertakes remain an integral part of her life. ‘I consider myself to be 50/50 performer and writer, and think I would find writing quite isolated without it.’
Lindsey Fraser is a partner in the literary consultancy, Fraser Ross Associates.
(published by Macmillan Children’s Books and illustrated by Axel Scheffler unless otherwise indicated)
Several titles also available as audio or song books.
The Gruffalo, 0 333 71092 4, £9.99 hbk, 0 333 71093 2, £5.99 pbk, 0 333 96568 X, £4.99 board, 0 333 90176 2, £14.99 big book
The Magic Paintbrush, ill. Joel Stewart, 0 333 96442 X, £9.99 hbk
Monkey Puzzle, 0 333 72000 8, £9.99 hbk, 0 333 72001 6, £4.99 pbk, 1 405 00912 8, £14.99 big book (0 333 96219 2, £4.99 board, June 03)
Princess Mirror-Belle, ill. Lydia Monks, 0 330 41530 1, £3.99 pbk (August 03)
Room on the Broom, 0 333 90337 4, £9.99 hbk, 0 333 90338 2, £5.99 pbk
The Smartest Giant in Town, 0 333 96144 7, £9.99 hbk
A Squash and a Squeeze, 1 405 00476 2, £9.99 hbk (reissued June 03)
‘Tales from Acorn Wood’ series: Fox’s Socks (0 333 96623 6 pbk), Hide-and-Seek Pig (0 333 76569 9 board, 0 333 96625 2 pbk), Postman Bear (0 333 76567 2 board, 0 333 96624 4 pbk), Rabbit’s Nap (0 333 76570 2 board, 0 333 98738 1), £3.99 each board, £4.99 each pbk
Julia Donaldson is also published by Puffin and Egmont.