Julia Donaldson is one of the UK’s most popular children’s authors. As I learned in the new exhibition at at Seven Stories in Newcastle, UK , she started her career writing songs for children’s television – which I must have heard as a child watching Play School. In 1993, one of those songs was made into a book, A Squash and A Squeeze, and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, so beginning a partnership that has become renowned the world over, thanks especially to their book The Gruffalo. Other illustrators who have worked with Julia include Karen George, Emily Gravett, Lydia Monks, David Roberts and Nick Sharratt. Indeed, since 1993, Julia has written over one hundred books and plays for children and teenagers.
Last year, Julia became the UK’s Children’s Laureate. This year, there is the exhibition about her, her work and some of her illustrators and I not only had the good fortune to be there for yesterday’s opening, but also the privilege of a quick interview (you can read my post about the whole day here). I had time for just three questions…
First of all I asked about the background to her book The Magic Paintbrush, which I wrote a post about going on five (gulp) years ago… Rereading that post, yes, it’s still a favorite, which is why it wasn’t the book I took with me to ask Julia to sign: I didn’t have time to go through all the various piles of books in my boys’ rooms to find it! The Magic Paintbrush is the retelling in verse of a Chinese legend in which the heroine Shen helps her fellow villagers with food and essentials thanks to a magic paintbrush given to her by a mysterious gentleman: but things get dangerous for Shen when the Emperor finds out about the magic paintbrush and wants it for himself…
So, about the book’s background, Julia told me that a friend of hers had been running a multicultural project in Stirling, Scotland, with local women from different countries telling traditional stories from their cultures. One woman told the story of The Magic Paintbrush. After hearing the story, Julia originally envisaged writing it as a play, and in fact, often uses the book during school visits as there’s plenty of scope for getting a whole class involved in acting out the story, with Julia herself playing Shen and the teacher as the Wicked Emperor! And it’s also a great vehicle for Julia to pass on her passion for language as she invites children to come up with objects for Shen to paint and thereby make real – as long as they have two syllables to fit the rhythm of the original verse. Interestingly, Julia also acted The Magic Paintbrush out with children last year at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh to promote two resource packs for schools produced by Amnesty International (you can read an article she wrote about it; and find Amnesty’s resources here – they include a lesson based around the wonderful We Are All Born Free…).
The Magic Paintbrush became a picture-book rather than a play – but it still had a bumpy path to publication. The original publisher who’d suggested it as a picture book then rejected it because what Julia had written was too long and detailed and “too much of a ballad”. In fact, this is one of the things Julia actually likes about it: that it is a fusion of its Chinese origins and the old English ballad. However, fortunately for us, Macmillan took it on, and Julia was delighted with their choice of Joel Stewart to do the illustrations. I agree, and it is a real treat to see some of his fine watercolour originals in the Seven Stories exhibition.
When I suggested that The Magic Paintbrush was different to her other books in that she didn’t invent the original story, I stood corrected: Julia’s original inspiration for The Gruffalo was the Chinese trickster tale about a tiger and a little girl. That was the starting point anyway although the little girl became a mouse and Julia expanded the story, and changed the setting – and of course, invented the Gruffalo, who changed her life. I later learned in the exhibition that Julia nearly gave up on writing The Gruffalo and we have her son to thank for saying he liked it and she had to finish it – phew!
I also asked Julia about the songs that go with so many of her picture books. It’s the words that come first, she said; and while writing the song, she may have to change the words slightly from the book to make them fit. She thinks about what kind of music will suit each book – so, for example, she was thinking of Bright Eyes when she composed the bits where the mother dinosaur speaks in the song for Tyrannosaurus Drip, a story about a little duckbill dinosaur that hatches out in a Tyrannosaurus nest by mistake, gets himself to the other side of the river to be with the other duckbills, and turns out to be a lot braver than his scary big sisters think – you can watch Julia performing it with her husband Malcolm here. I think it’s quite funny that Julia was inspired by a song about rabbits for hers about dinosaurs – what would the rabbits say! And now she’s working on a calypso song for her recent book Jack and the Flumflum Tree…
As Children’s Laureate, Julia has been a key figure in the campaign against library closures and cuts in the UK. It just so happened that yesterday statistics pointing at falling standards of literacy hit the headlines, so I asked Julia what her reaction was, in relation to our libraries. After expressing her concern about reading too much into a set of statistics, she pointed out that nevertheless any measures for getting children reading are welcome - “but let’s not forget we have this fabulous resource – libraries!” She then counted off some of the fantastic programs available through libraries for enhancing literacy and getting children enjoying books: the Rhymetime sessions set up by Book Trust’s BookStart program; the equivalent Bookbug sessions organised through Scottish Book Trust (and Julia recently became Bookbug’s patron); the Summer Reading Challenge (yes, my boys have loved that every year). So closing down libraries? “For me it’s madness, if we’re worried about literacy. You can’t just ram a book down a child’s throat. A library is where you decide what you like. For goodness’ sake, we should be hanging onto our libraries. ”
And another “fantastic” way to enhance literacy, Julia says, is for children to read playlets together – and it so happens that she’s working on a book of 36 playlets at the moment. Now that will be a treat in store. And I have a real treat for you now too, because Julia gave me permission to reproduce the poem she wrote for the UK’s National Libraries Day in February this year in celebration of libraries and as a prod against library cuts. Here it is:
Everyone is welcome to walk through the door.
It really doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.
There are books in boxes and books on shelves.
They’re free for you to borrow, so help yourselves.
Come and meet your heroes, old and new,
From William the Conqueror to Winnie the Pooh.
You can look into the Mirror or read The Times,
Or bring along a toddler to chant some rhymes.
The librarian’s a friend who loves to lend,
So see if there’s a book that she can recommend.
Read that book, and if you’re bitten
You can borrow all the other ones the author’s written.
Are you into battles or biography?
Are you keen on gerbils or geography?
Gardening or ghosts? Sharks or science fiction?
There’s something here for everyone, whatever your addiction.
There are students revising, deep in concentration,
And school kids doing projects, finding inspiration.
Over in the corner there’s a table with seating,
So come along and join in the Book Club meeting.
Yes, come to the library! Browse and borrow,
And help make sure it’ll still be here tomorrow.
Julia Donaldson, February 2012
Thank you, Julia. It was such a pleasure to meet you and I so enjoyed talking to you.