Julia Donaldson’s face lights up when she is on stage, especially when her husband Malcolm joins her. On one Delhi morning, she donned a pair of furry pink mouse ears while he fastened the Gruffalo’s distinctive prickled spine onto his back, and together they sang, danced, and whisked the audience away into their unique world of storytelling.
One of the most popular picture book writers of our time, Donaldson is famous among toddlers and parents as the creator of The Gruffalo, a delightful rhyming book illustrated by Axel Scheffler. The book has sold over 13 million copies since its publication in 1999 and been translated into over seventy languages. At 69, Donaldson’s energy is infectious. While talking about her India tour – she was at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, as well as in Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai this January – she often slipped into song, as did her husband, reciting bits and bobs of poetry and snippets from her books.
The origin of her most popular book is as fascinating as the tale itself, about a tiny mouse who outwits the fearsome Gruffalo in the forest. Donaldson came across a Chinese folk tale about a girl who tricks a hungry tiger and later decided to write a picture book by creating her own monster. “I thought having ‘Grr’ in the name would be a good beginning,” she said. But the name needed to end with an “O” to rhyme with “doesn’t he know”, and thus was born the Gruffalo, with terrible tusks, knobbly knees, and turned-out toes. Ever since, The Gruffalo has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of children across the world.
All about the rhyme
What encourages young readers to read her stories again and again is Donaldson’s delightful rhymes, and that is something the English writer pays a lot of attention to. “Sometimes I think with rhyming books you get some laboured ones, and they have been written very quickly. And the ones that trip off the tongue probably took quite a long time to write,” she said. “I could just talk to you in rhyme, but it would be rubbish. I could just write any old thing in rhyme but it would be ridiculous.”
Not all her books are written in rhyme, but once she decides to, Donaldson works on finding a good chorus that binds the narrative together, such as in her latest book, The Ugly Five, the story of a hilarious safari through South Africa. “With The Ugly Five, I knew it’s going to be a chant – “we are the ugly one, we are the ugly two, and we are the ugly three...”, I have got to make sure there are rhymes for one, two, three, four, five. I couldn’t just write it up to four and then suddenly there’s no rhyme for five. It’s all quite planned, especially the chorus,” said Donaldson.
The Ugly Five, also illustrated by Scheffler, is a wonderful story about parenthood that challenges notions of perfection. Like many of her other books, it roots for the underdog. So, although the Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant – often dominate the landscape, this book introduces young readers to the lesser-known and lesser-loved wildebeest, warthog, spotted hyena, lappet-faced vulture and Marabou stork.
Many of Donaldson’s stories explore memory, grief, and death subtly, some of them resonating with her own life – whether it’s the loss of her son or her hearing difficulty. Both What the Jackdaw Saw, illustrated by Nick Sharratt, and Freddie and the Fairy, illustrated by Karen George, feature deafness. Then there’s The Paper Dolls illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, which talks about the fragility of memory and loss.
In her young adult book, Running on the Cracks, Donaldson weaves together threads about mental illness, immigration, and abuse. It features 15-year-old Leonora, who is on the run from a creepy uncle, while attempting to trace the Chinese part of the family in Glasgow, meeting an eclectic set of characters along the way. “My favourite character is the mentally ill woman, Mary, who is very kind and generous,” said Donaldson, talking about the woman who takes in the runaway Leonora. “She is not just schizophrenic and manic depressive, she’s a real person. I enjoyed writing her character a lot.”
Donaldson has also written middle grade fiction (for readers aged between 8 years and 12 years) and plays and says picture books have been excellent training for writing longer stories. With over 60 books under her belt, the key is to plans all her stories carefully before writing them. In fact, on her website, she describes a typical day in her life in rhyme, and ends it by writing, “Story planned! Tomorrow, start writing it – the easy part.”
“Obviously, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in the book but I probably did a little bit more of planning,” she said, talking about Running on the Cracks. “It’s a very different writing procedure – I had to devote days and weeks, come downstairs, sit at my computer, write a thousand words, even if they were rubbish. Then the next day I would review those. And I couldn’t have a gap. With a picture book, I might solidly do it for two weeks, whereas for this, it took probably six months.”
A team of two
Her husband Malcolm said they read many of the drafts together, often out loud to each other. In fact, he looks at the books at each stage, confessing that he is her sounding board – “solid as wood and twice as bright”. When Donaldson jumped in to mention how he encourages her, he laughed and added, “Over nearly 50 years, I must have made the odd helpful suggestion. With the creation of a book I feel like a father being present at the birth of his baby. In other words, very involved, terribly hoping things will go alright, but not much able to do anything.”
Having been together for almost fifty years, the couple have a delightful camaraderie. “We have been together since we have been twenty,” said Malcolm, who is also a governor at a local primary school in West Sussex. “We have been performing and singing together in restaurants, in streets, in parties, long before Julia became a writer. It is part of us really.”
Both of them strongly believe that encouraging children to enact stories improves reading skills. In 2011, Donaldson was appointed Britain’s Children’s Laureate, and she continues to champion public libraries and dramatised readings in a bid to get children to love books and stories. “It’s very good for the confidence of the not-so-good readers when they perform,” she said. “Their reading does improve but also confidence and success in the role, they see,” said Malcolm. “It’s the point of reading.”
With her books only becoming more and more popular, what makes Donaldson’s writing a constant favourite is a wondrous ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Anything is possible if a mouse can imagine a hungry Gruffalo that is very real, if paper dolls can have adventures of their own, and if the unlikeliest of friendships can be forged. In The Snail and the Whale, a snail hitches a ride on the back of a whale to see the world and eventually ends up saving the whale when it gets beached in a bay. “I liked the idea of this very small creature and this very big creature seeing the world in a different way,” said Donaldson. And that’s what Donaldson offers children – a completely different way of seeing their world.