Books interview: Julia Donaldson

Jacket image for The Giant Jumperee

Jacket image for The Giant Jumperee - Credit: Archant

The top children’s author talks about her latest book and growing up in Hampstead

Julia Donaldson

Julia Donaldson - Credit: Archant

Two titans of children’s children’s storytelling have collaborated on a charming tale about a baby frog who plays a trick on three bigger animals.

Based on an African story, The Giant Jumperee (Puffin £6.99) is written by Julia Donaldson, who grew up in Hampstead, and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, who still lives there. There’s a scary creature in rabbit’s burrow and bear, elephant and cat speak to whatever lurks below, then scurry away, scared.

Until a mummy frog marches up and realises it’s her baby playing a trick.

“I wrote it as a play for an interactive performance to get children involved in storytelling,” says Donaldson, who wrote songs for children’s TV before her storybook success.

“It’s a tale about a little animal playing a trick on much bigger animals who turn out to be terrible cowards. It appeals to children who love playing tricks on adults. Almost immediately I thought it would make a lovely picture book.”

Donaldson, who grew up in a house near the Heath with parents, grandparent aunt and uncle has “always admired” Oxenbury’s illustrations for the likes of Farmer Duck and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

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“She is brilliant and so verstatile. Bear Hunt is just a traditional song we did in Girl Guides but it was a great idea to turn it into a picture book. I also loved So Much about a Jamaican family which is so realistically drawn.”

Donaldson rarely works alongside her illustrators, although sometimes she influences their choices: she successfully convinced David Roberts that Peg Polkadot in The Troll should be “a live cabin girl rather than a giant polkadot”.

And Axel Scheffler’s orginal Gruffalo illustrations had the animals wearing clothes. Oxenbury was an exception.

“For most partnerships I write a story in a vacuum, send it to the publisher, they approach an illustrator, who sends their sketches. I make comments but usually they get on with it without me breathing down their necks. But with Helen we did meet up. I had envisaged pictures of the animals imagining the scary monster in the burrow. But she wanted it just to be what actually happened, and leave the rest to the child readers’ imagination which was much better of course.

“This book is the opposite of the Gruffalo where you think there isn’t a monster but there is. Here the animals think there’s a monster but there isn’t. You wouldn’t really get an elephant a bear and a rabbit in the same landscape, but Helen convinces you it’s possible.”

As a child Donaldson was “bookish” haunting, Keats Library and the second hand bookshops in Perrin’s Lane.

“With books you enter into a different world and way of thinking for the time you are reading. “

Once while a pupil at New End Primary, she nominated local children’s author Eleanor Farjeon as in need of a decorated harvest festival basket

“I knew where she lived and told my teacher she was a terribly needy older serson I went round and introduced myself, she was in bed but she welcomed me and mys sister in and was charming”

Nearly 200 books on, she has no plans to stop writing: “It’s just what I do, I have been successful at it, I take pride in it and I wouldn’t think of not doing it. What I really enjoy is acting out the stories,” she adds, having just returned from a sell out stint performing The Gruffalo, The Witch and the Warthog at the at Edinburgh Fringe.

“I like the whole life around writing books; going to festivals, meeting authors putting on shows, turning them into performances. This is a lovely one for children to act out - they love that. Mine used to act the Three Billy Goats Gruff every time we crossed a stream.”

And of course the 60-year-old is “inundated” with letters from children, parents and schools.

“It’s very gratifying when they thank you for hours of pleasure at bed time - I know what it’s like to enjoy reading stories to my children -or how sayings from the books become part of family life.