The Gruffalo’s Julia Donaldson on how it all began


Up there with the all time greats, The Gruffalo continues to capture children’s imaginations across the world.  Julia Donaldson, the inspirational author behind the book, speaks exclusively to School Notices and tells us how it all began…


What made you decide to become a writer?
For my fifth birthday, my father gave me a very fat book called The Book of a Thousand Poems. I loved it. I read the poems, recited them, learnt them, and then started making up some of my own. Although I wanted to be a poet all those years ago, I later decided I would rather go on the stage. That didn’t quite work out, so I did other jobs – teaching and publishing. But somehow I’ve ended up doing what I wanted to do when I was five years old. I have a theory that this happens to quite a lot of people.

Who was your biggest influence?
My best friend’s mother was an author called Celia Fremlin. She wrote crime novels, and she used to let us read the manuscripts before they were published, which was very exciting. I remember her saying how often her best ideas came when she was doing something quite ordinary like the washing up, so now I never feel guilty when I’m not at my desk.

How did the Gruffalo come about?
I was asked by a publisher many years ago to write some short plays for children based on traditional tales, so I did a lot of reading. One of the stories I discovered was about a little girl who tricks a tiger. I decided not to turn it into a play as I thought I could adapt the story to make a good picture-book. When I started to write it, I found the tiger a difficult character, as nothing rhymed with “tiger”. So I created an imaginary monster, who could rhyme with whatever I wanted.

Silly old Fox, doesn’t he know. There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!

How did your working relationship with Axel Scheffler materialise?
We were paired up by Methuen for our first book, A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE.  Actually, Axel was the third illustrator to be approached: Susan Hellard and Mairi Hedderwick were both too busy! We only met (at a publisher’s party) after the book had been published. We have since become friends and often meet up at book festivals, appearing in shows and signing together. We’ve also several times toured Germany, acting out the stories in German.

We still work quite separately: he usually has no idea what I’m writing about until the publisher sends him the text, and then I more-or-less let him get on with the illustrations according to how he sees the characters.

What was your favourite book growing up?
I liked the William books (stories about an eleven-year-old boy who has great ideas but always gets into trouble), and also the novels of E.Nesbit whose stories like “Five Children and It” were about very real children but with an element of magic. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild was another favourite, because it went into so much detail about the lives of the three sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Poppy. I also loved “The Swish of the Curtain” by Pamela Brown, about some children who discover a disused theatre, do it up and put on shows there.

How many books have you written?

I have written 210 books. (90 of them can be bought in shops, and the others are for schools.)

Which of your many books are you most proud of?
They’re like my children so I don’t really have favourites, but the book I feel most proud of is my teenage novel RUNNING ON THE CRACKS.

Have you always loved poetry?
Yes, ever since my father gave me The Boo of a Thousand Poems for my fifth birthday. I read the poems, recited them, learnt them, and then started making up some of my own.

What did you do as Children’s Laureate?
My three “big things” were performance (helping children to act out stories), libraries, and stories for deaf children. I created a series of Plays to Read and a poetry anthology called “Poems to Perform”, and I undertook a six-week library tour in which the children who came along had to present a story, song or poem to me. I also helped some deaf students write their own book, “What the Jackdaw Saw”.

When not writing, what do you like doing?
Acting, singing, playing the piano, going for long walks. I love finding new flowers and fungi.

What advice can you give to aspiring young writers?
I usually advise them to give their main character a problem and make it get worse before it gets better. I’d also suggest trying out different styles and subjects. In particular, I find children often enjoy writing plays. That way you can leave out all the boring descriptions!

How can we encourage our kids to read?
I think the most important thing is for parents to read to their children – even when the children are older and can read for themselves. Then, if reading truly is enjoyable, there’s no reason why those children won’t want to read later, though there may be a gap during the teenage years. . I’m not so keen on parents trying to teach their children to read, as that can sometimes be stressful, but there are games with words and letters that are fun to play.

Tell us about The Teeny Weeny Genie
It’s a story about wishes that get out of control. The setting is a farmyard, and there are elements of “The Farmer’s in his Den” and “Old Macdonald had a Farm.” It’s my third collaboration with the wonderful Anna Currey, our first two books together being One Ted Falls Out of Bed and Rosie’s Hat.

 Any ideas for your next book?
It’s going to be about caterpillars and moths.

 Motto for life?
Walk and sing and turn off your mobile phone.


The Teeny Weeny Genie by Julia Donaldson illustrated by Anna Currey, is published by Macmillan Children’s Books, price £12.99

Released: August 6th 2020

 



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