Up and away - how Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson’s stories took off

Bridget Galton talks to the writer about her Hampstead childhood and passion for children’s literacy

Unless you’ve been living on the moon this past decade, then you’ll know Julia Donaldson’s books.

For parents of preschoolers they may perhaps be too familiar.

Begged nightly to read her tales of witches and giants, thieving rats and trainee dragons - with their compulsive rhyming text - one desperate mother confessed to the author she’d ‘lost’ a loved book down the back of a radiator.

Illustrated with Axel Scheffler’s beautifully detailed animal worlds, books such as The Gruffalo and Snail and the Whale have become modern classics, bywords for quality storytelling that have given thousands of children a love of books.

Fans won’t be surprised to learn of Donaldson’s background in songwriting. While studying French and Drama at University, she busked around Europe with her future husband Malcolm, writing songs about spaghetti.

Those of us who recall the Brian Cant/Toni Arthur days of Play Away on the BBC will have caught her written-to-order songs about visiting a museum or going to the dentist. It was one song – A Squash and a Squeeze - written for another pre-school TV programme that was dusted off 15 years later, illustrated by Scheffler, and set her off as a storybook writer.

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“I was approached out of the blue and once it was published it was a bit of a moment for me. A song disappears into the ether but this was so nice and solid - I had children and knew what a lovely thing bedtime reading was. I thought, why didn’t I think of this before? I could do more of this.” The 66-year-old grew up in Hampstead in a three-storey house on Pilgrim’s Lane with her grandmother on the top floor, aunt in the middle and her family on the ground floor.

“The house still belongs to the family. Now it seems incredibly near but as a little girl the distance to the Heath felt such a plod on short legs. I remember the playground being built, and lovely willow trees, with a half hollow tree my sister and I used to slide down we called the super tree.

“There were lots of bohemian families, one of them had a huge garden with bluebells which we picked and sold in bunches for threepence in aid of charity.

“Miss Farndale the librarian at Keats Library, was very keen and did puppet shows. Once when I was ill in bed, mum went to the library and came back with a collection of books she’d helped choose.”

It was a house full of music, recalls Donaldson.

“Mother sang alto in the Hampstead Choral Society and they pretty much ran the music club for years. My father researched the history of Burgh House and put on wonderful concerts of songs and music about Hampstead.”

While attending New End Primary and Camden School for Girls she learned piano and caught the acting bug.

“I had a terrific memory for poetry. My teacher at New End would recite something and I could recite the whole thing back to her. After that I had to read a poem on speech day. I did a play, went into a children’s opera group and got a role understudying the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic. I was quite stage struck from then on and wanted to be an actress but I was also academic so got channelled into university.”

She met Malcolm at Bristol and when they married in 1972, their wedding reception featured an operetta penned by Donaldson with parts for the groom, bridesmaids and best man.

“The local rag and bone man took us from Hampstead Parish Church to Burgh House with everyone processing along.”

After Uni they volunteered to take semi-improvised interactive plays to kids on deprived housing estates and Donaldson developed a passionate interest in how children engage with stories.

“Bristol Street Theatre had a huge effect on my writing and the way I dramatise stories.

“Later on I wrote short plays for very small school reading groups where they swap the parts around. It’s a fantastic way of improving their reading and their confidence.

“I noticed even the shy or naughty ones enjoy being given a small role. That’s why I try very hard to make the lines in my books scan. I try it out in my head. Just like I learned those poems as a little girl, if it’s rhyming, children are very quick to predict what’s next, and some know them off by heart, which is so gratifying. When they learn to read they get them off the shelf and realise they can decode them and read a whole book.”

After A Squash and a Squeeze came Donaldson’s 1999 storybook blockbuster The Gruffalo, a tale of a clever mouse who invents a monster to evade three predators.

Once again the Scotland-based Donaldson worked separately from Scheffler, who lives in London and has no idea of the text beforehand..

“Working with an illustrator is like going on holiday. You have a picture in your mind of what the place is going to be. You get there and it’s totally different, but before long you forget your original idea.

“The Gruffalo sat on a publisher’s desk for a year (before being illustrated) When I did school visits and asked the children to draw pictures, even with the same features – orange eyes, purple prickles - they looked very different. I did imagine him less of a woodland creature, more colourful, like an alien. But as soon as I saw Axel’s picture I thought ‘Yes! That’s what he looks like.”

Soon after publication, Tall Stories children’s theatre company - based at Jackson’s Lane - requested rights to adapt The Grufalo.

“I was so chuffed, it was the first time anything like that had happened. I like their style, not condescending, and picture books are flat so it’s lovely to see the movement and music.” The company has since adapted Snail and the Whale, Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom for the stage and Donaldson confesses when she goes to see them, she’s “a bit nervous”.

“I’m watching the audience hoping there are going to enjoy it. It’s my story, if they are shuffling, going to the loo or crying I feel responsible.”

As for future books, she has plenty of ideas but fears duplication: “I think, ‘I’ve done two giants and I can’t do a witch again.’ But every now and then, one comes along that’s totally new and if I ever get stuck I find relaxing in a hot bath usually works, which is why I’ve put a couple of baths in my books.”

Room on the Broom is at the Lyric Theatre until January 11 Roomonthebroomlive.co.uk.

Gruffalo’s Child runs at The Arts Depot. Bookings