Whether it’s the Gruffalo, Zog or Stick Man, every night children around the globe beg to hear Julia Donaldson’s magical stories – not least Bryony Gordon’s daughter Edie, six. So when Bryony got the chance to interview the children’s author extraordinaire, she enlisted a little help from her number-one fan
Standing outside Julia Donaldson’s front door, my six-year-old daughter takes a deep breath. It’s the end of a long summer holiday filled with trips abroad, visits to theme parks and a diet of ice cream. But this, says Edie, ‘is probably my favourite day of all’. She doesn’t think any of her friends will believe her, and has been thinking up questions for her favourite author – has she ever met an actual gruffalo? – since she found out about this interview (which was, she informs me, seven and a half weeks ago, or 52 days to be precise – not that she’s been counting).
Julia is to young children what JK Rowling is to their older siblings, an author who inspires such utter devotion that it is almost impossible to imagine a child’s bedroom that doesn’t contain at least one of her books. Her imagination has created such characters as the Gruffalo, Stick Man, the Highway Rat, Zog and Superworm, to name but a few. Such is the anticipation for her new book, The Smeds and the Smoos, that on the plane to our holiday in France we had to bat off enquiries from several parents, wondering how we’d managed to get our hands on an early copy, and Edie ended up reading it to a group of toddlers in the departure lounge.
Julia has written more than 160 books, which have, in turn, launched countless theme-park rides, film adaptations and merchandise opportunities. Earlier this month, the Royal Mint announced it would be releasing a Gruffalo 50p piece. Julia, who was once Children’s Laureate and has received a CBE for her services to literature, is said to be worth £30 million, and last year she was the third biggest-selling author in the UK, ahead of Michelle Obama and Lee Child (and only just behind David Walliams and JK Rowling). Which isn’t bad for a woman who spent much of her early career busking on the streets of Bristol, Paris and San Francisco.
Today we are meeting Julia, 70, at her home in Steyning, West Sussex. It is beautiful, with a large garden and an amazing pond full of koi carp, which she immediately takes Edie to feed, before presenting her with a plate of chocolate-chip cookies, a pencil case full of felt tips, and an array of activity books based on some of her creations.
She is a natural with children, her voice has the sing-song tone of a storybook narrator even when offering cups of water and biscuits. ‘Would you like to see the prop room?’ she asks, before taking Edie’s hand and leading us up a staircase to a room filled with giant puppets and costumes of all her characters, which she uses for book events. Donaldson dresses a giggling Edie up as a headless ghost. We descend the stairs with arms full of props, sit ourselves down in her living room, and begin the interview. But Edie’s carefully prepared questions have vanished from her head. She is eyeing a giant stuffed version of the Gruffalo, speechless, and possibly about to explode with joy.
Julia did not mean to become a multimillionaire children’s author. It was a very happy accident, as most of the best things are. She had always been creative, having had a somewhat bohemian childhood in Hampstead, living in a sprawling house with her parents, younger sister, and extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents – a house of ‘music and song’. She met her husband, Malcolm, a medical student and keen actor, while studying drama and French at Bristol University. Holidays were spent busking their way around Europe and America.
They married in 1972, and Julia was in her early 20s when she started working as a secretary at a publishing house. At the weekends, they would volunteer with a street-theatre group in Bristol, devising plays that could be performed by children in local council-estate playgrounds. It was this that ignited her passion for working with children. Julia began to write songs for the BBC children’s programme Play Away; they were performed by the likes of Floella Benjamin and Johnny Ball. When that work waned, she studied to become an English teacher, a job she continued until the birth of her first son, Hamish, in 1978.
‘I was a stay-at-home mum. Now you have maternity benefits. Your job is held open. But that was never the case back then. I would write songs sporadically, but that was it.’ Her sons Alastair and Jerry were born shortly after. And then, out of the blue, in 1991, she received the call that would change everything.
When she tells the story to me and Edie, it is almost a performance in itself. ‘I never dreamt that I would end up writing books,’ she says with a flourish. ‘I was just a songwriter. I had written this one song called A Squash and a Squeeze [for the BBC].’ Edie’s eyes light up in recognition. ‘Then, a long, long time later, I got a phone call from someone asking if they could make my song into a children’s picture book. I tried to stay calm. I said, “I think that should be OK, let me just check.” And then when I put the phone down I jumped around the room in delight.’ At this, she bounces up and down on the sofa.
A Squash and a Squeeze, about a woman who is taught to appreciate the size of her small cottage by a variety of farmyard animals, was illustrated by a young German called Axel Scheffler. It was a success, and Julia started to write extensively. She came up with the idea of The Gruffalo, a story about a mysterious monster dreamt up by a woodland mouse to scare off predators, after reading a Chinese tale about a girl who pretends to be the queen of the jungle to stave off a tiger, but she couldn’t make it work. It was Alastair and Jerry, then entering adolescence, who encouraged her by coming up with plot lines and details for the monster.
She sent the text to Scheffler in 1995, and within days Macmillan had made an offer to publish it. Today, it has sold in excess of 17 million copies. Why does she think it was such a hit? ‘Oh, I used to have a long, rambling answer for this, but Axel and I have got it down to eight words now: good rhymes, good story, great pictures, bit scary. That’s it!’ She admits: ‘People often start to say, “Oh, I love your…” and I always hope it is going to be any other book than The Gruffalo. I’ve got nothing against The Gruffalo, but it would be much more interesting, I think, to talk at length about another book…’
Julia now has seven grandchildren, all aged nine and under, who live in the Cotswolds and Edinburgh. ‘I tend not to read my books to them because I would just be mortified if they wriggled and got off my knee. Plus one of them actually told me he preferred the Star Wars toy catalogue to my books. Not even a Star Wars adventure book!’ she laughs, while Edie shakes her head in disbelief.
But Julia’s close-knit family has also experienced tragedy – in 2003, her oldest son, Hamish, took his own life. His experiences in psychiatric hospitals in part inspired her YA work. ‘I don’t really want to talk about that,’ she says, quite understandably.
Julia’s average day involves anything from checking book covers and illustrations to scripts for film adaptations. She loves walking on the South Downs, and often comes up with her ideas there. She is now working on another picture book, but it is top secret. Does she still feel any pressure? ‘Oh, I do a bit. Not nearly as much as I used to. Even when The Gruffalo came out, I’d go into Waterstones and say, “Have you got a book called The, um, err, Gruffalo, maybe? I’ve read this review and it’s supposed to be WONDERFUL!”
She still gets a thrill when she sees an entire section of a book shop devoted to her work. ‘And I’m always really pleased if they’ve got a good selection. I have certain favourites, which I like to think of as my neglected masterpieces.’ At this she chuckles. Edie asks which books she likes best. ‘I love The Scarecrows’ Wedding. I’m very partial to The Everywhere Bear, and I adore The Paper Dolls.’ Edie nods along in agreement.
We are here, ostensibly, to discuss The Smeds and the Smoos, about a couple of aliens from different sides of a planet who fall in love against their family’s wishes. It is dedicated to ‘the children of Europe’, a sort of Romeo and Juliet for the Brexit generation. It’s an idea that was brewing for some time. ‘I had tried to make it work several times, because I knew Axel was good at aliens. And I sometimes think that when there are long delays that perhaps there’s a hidden reason. Because it’s true, this book has a sort of “better together” message, one that is against prejudice. It does seem quite opportune.’
Bedtime, she believes, is the perfect time to talk. ‘I think it’s important that there are stories that provoke discussion. So children can say, “That’s so silly Mummy, not liking the other aliens because they drink pink milk.” But I don’t want to get too politically correct. I think that is what’s so wonderful about picture books. There are silly ones and earnest ones and ones that just revel in language. There are ones with no words. And they can be quite deep, sometimes. Whereas the next stage [of reading] is princesses and ponies and farts...’ She raises her eyebrows.
Does she worry that screens are distracting children from books? Edie looks mortified at my question. ‘Well thank you, Edie,’ says Donaldson, noting the look of horror on her face. ‘Because it’s true I don’t know much about screens. I only got a mobile phone at Christmas! But yes, I do get depressed when I get on the train and see everyone scrolling. My heart always rises when I see someone reading a book. I think it’s really important that more adults read actual books, because you take your cues so much from parents, even when you think you’re rebelling against them.’
But she doesn’t worry that phones are going to kill books. ‘It’s much more fun to actually turn the pages, don’t you think?’ Edie nods furiously back at her idol. ‘And snuggling up with your mum and dad and a book is nice, isn’t it?’ Edie nods again as she’s led away for one last feed of the fish.
‘It’s definitely been the best day of the summer,’ says my daughter, as we chug back to London. And very possibly, though she may not realise it yet, her young childhood.
‘The Smeds and The Snoos’, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (Alison Green Books, £12.99), is out now