How Gruffalo creator's career took off with a squash and a squeeze

PUBLISHED: 17:46 09 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:12 07 September 2010

The Gruffalo outwits dark and powerful adversaries

The Gruffalo outwits dark and powerful adversaries

Author of the bestselling children s book, The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson tells Katie Masters where her inspiration comes from from Anyone who has children or grandchildren under nine, will know about The Gruffalo. Since being published in 1999, it s b

Author of the bestselling children's book,

The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson tells Katie Masters where her inspiration comes from from

Anyone who has children or grandchildren under nine, will know about The Gruffalo.

Since being published in 1999, it's become a publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies, being turned into a West End play and currently being worked up as a TV animation.

But it's only one of 146 books written by author, Julia Donaldson. These include plays, a just-finished novel for teenagers and dozens of picture books.

And it's as a picture book writer that she's been invited to take part in a Connecting Conversations event at the Anna Freud Centre in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead.

She will be talking to psychologist Fatima Martinez del Solar about the links between her own childhood and her books and what reading means to children.

"I think the difference between children's literature and adult literature is that for children there has to be, ultimately, a message of hope," she says.

"I'm not keen on the old fairy tales that end with a child being boiled in a pot by a troll. In my own stories, I like to have some scariness and excitement. But my instinct is always to resolve it and have a happy ending.

"It's important in childhood that you have hope and things to aim for, even though later on you discover life's not really like that.

"If you didn't have those patterns in your mind - the belief in overcoming difficulties - living would be a real struggle."

Overcoming problems is central to The Gruffalo, in which a mouse outsmarts a fearsome beast of the woods.

"My feeling is that the reason The Gruffalo is so popular is because it's showing a little threatened creature actually outwitting dark, powerful adversaries.

"For me, one of the nicest things about children's books is that the child, or the animal representing the child, is on their own.

"They go off, without mummy or daddy, and things happen. It's a way of introducing children to self-reliance and the qualities that help you cope with life."

Donaldson describes her own childhood as secure and middle class. She grew up in Hampstead, in a tall Victorian house on what is now Pilgrim's Lane, with her parents, younger sister Mary, her aunt and uncle and her grandmother.

"My father developed polio when I was six and was in a wheelchair, so we had the ground floor.

"But all living together meant my uncle could take me to the Heath to play ball games and I could go and rifle through my granny's Edward Lear collection whenever I wanted.

"Now, as a writer, I think really hard about language, rhythms, rhymes. I'm always trying to create something as lovely as the Lear poems my granny read to me."

Books were an important part of Donaldson's childhood.

She vividly remembers a librarian from Heath Library, Miss Farndale, and the joy of visiting the old second-hand bookshops on Perrins Lane.

"I loved E. Nesbitt, Noel Streatfeild, Richmal Crompton.

"Just William had such wonderful scorn and powers of rhetoric, I quite modelled myself on him. I loved the Frog and Toad books, too.

"My favourite story was the one where Toad makes a list of things to do, starts doing them and then the list blows away.

"Frog says, 'Chase after it' and Toad says, 'I can't do that, it wasn't on the list' and sits there until the end of the day not doing anything because he's lost his list. Those stories illustrate human foible so brilliantly."

But it wasn't long before Donaldson graduated from being told stories to telling her own.

"Being the older sister had a lot to do with me becoming a writer.

"I told stories to entertain Mary - that was my role, a nurturing thing. I remember sitting in the bath with her, announcing I was a fairy in disguise. She completely believed me. I believed myself!"

When they were in their bunk bed at night, Donaldson, in the top bunk, would tell stories of friendly witches, swinging the light to create shadows on the opposite wall.

And one of the steps leading up to the house, made of a different stone to the others, became the magic step, which had to be jumped over to bring good luck.

At school too, she was recognised as having a way with words.

"I went to New End Primary School and one day the teacher read a poem and then said, 'Can anyone remember any of that?' I put my hand up and recited the whole thing back to her. After that, I always had to read out poems on Speech Day."

But Donaldson said the feat of memory came naturally.

"I started memorising poems when I was five. I'd just learned to read and my father gave me a poetry book - The Book Of A Thousand Poems. I loved it and started learning them all.

"Later, when I was 12, I was in something called the Children's Opera Group and through that I got the chance to understudy one of the fairies in a Bristol Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"Judi Dench was in it, playing Hermia. I learned the whole script completely off by heart and after that my mother only had to say, 'I'm off to do the ironing' and I'd be reciting, 'The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve...'"

That experience bred a life-long fascination with the theatre.

After reading French and drama at Bristol University, Donaldson applied for a place at Bristol Old Vic. Not getting in, she stayed in Bristol and did a six-month secretarial course before taking up a publishing position in London.

Marriage and children followed and a move up to Glasgow, where her medic husband Malcolm had been offered a job.

Donaldson had started writing children's songs for the BBC. But it wasn't until 1993, in her mid-40s, that a publisher approached her with the suggestion of turning her song A Squash And A Squeeze into a picture book - and her career as an author took off.

She's never looked back.

"Acting, writing, reading: they're all ways of widening your own experience and entering into someone else's mind.

"You're escaping yourself but you're also adding to yourself. That's an exciting thing to do.

"I hope I keep doing it for as long as I can."

o Don't miss next week's children's summer holiday books special.

Julia Donaldson talks to psychologist Fatima Martinez del Solar about her work on Sunday July 13 at the Anna Freud Centre, 21 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, at 7pm-8.30pm followed by refreshments.

For full details, log on to www.connectingconversations. org.

Tickets are £12 for adults, concessions £6. Suitable for age nine plus.

To book, call 07787 814316 (£2.50 booking fee) or log on to www.connectingconversations.org (no fee). Tickets on the door subject to availability.

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