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People We Love: Julia Donaldson

Simon Hemelryk / 20 November 2017 ( 22 March 2019 )

The multi-million selling author of The Gruffalo talks as The Highway Rat becomes her latest book to be animated and shown on BBC One at Christmas.

Children's author Julia Donaldson. Photo by Lydia Evans
Children's author Julia Donaldson. Photo by Lydia Evans

How does it feel to be such a big part of the festive season?

Lovely. Although I was brought up never to watch TV on Christmas Day. We played games. So I’ve broken that rule.

I think the animations of my stories have been done really well. The structure and climax remain. At the Stick Man premiere, my 30-something son was crying for five minutes.

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You’ve written more than 200 books. The Gruffalo is very famous, but which deserve more attention?

My Princess Mirror-Belle stories. They’re very influenced by writers I enjoyed, such as E Nesbit, who created quite subversive characters. Mirror-Belle is pretty naughty.

There’s also, I suppose, my teenage book Running on the Cracks. It’s not that I prefer it to my other stuff. It’s just that people say ‘Oh my children are too old [for your work] now’ and I’d like them to know that if they’ve enjoyed the picture books, I have done different things.

Do your seven grandchildren appreciate the honour of you reading to them?

My son always announces book titles to my eldest, Poppy, who’s seven. He says, ‘The Snowman by Raymond Briggs’, or ‘Room on the Broom by GRANNY!’

One grandson is beginning to realise I’m well known and has started asking me questions: ‘Is The Gruffalo your most famous book?’ My son always announces book titles to my eldest, Poppy, who’s seven. He says, ‘The Snowman by Raymond Briggs’, or ‘Room on the Broom by GRANNY!’

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You’ve been writing and performing for decades. How do you keep motivated?

It’s more that I’d need a reason to stop. I love seeing the illustrations in the new books. I love putting on the shows. [Julia and her husband Malcolm stage musical productions of her stories.] They are usually slightly different every time – and our grandchildren have appeared in them. I enjoy the travel. My newest work, The Ugly Five, was inspired by a safari I went on last year, while we were in South Africa doing a book tour and some shows. It’s great getting out and seeing the world.

What sort of reactions do you get to your performances?

I get children up onstage acting out the parts of the dragons in Zog. I’ve had some brilliant roarers. But, then, I’ve had very pathetic ones, as well. One child weed on the stage when we were doing The Magic Paintbrush.

But the nicest thing was when two of my young grandchildren came to see Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts [which was on at the Edinburgh fringe in 2015 and other venues since then]. From the stage, I caught this mesmerised, transfixed look.

Do you have any eccentric fans?

I get a lot of funny letters: ‘Dear Julia Donaldson. I really like your books. That’s enough about you. Let’s get back to talking about me.’

I get a lot of funny letters: ‘Dear Julia Donaldson. I really like your books. That’s enough about you. Let’s get back to talking about me.’ Or ‘What was your favourite Julia Donaldson book when you were a child?’

I get some sad ones, too – thanking me for the fact that a book has kept an older sibling happy, while a baby was very ill. People say that my book The Paper Dolls – which is sort of about bereavement and loss – has helped a child, say, whose grandmother has died.

You recently moved to the small West Sussex country town of Steyning, after always living in cities. How have you found the pace of life?

I grew up in London, but as soon as I discovered that the Metropolitan line went to Amersham and Chesham, I’d be out there with the London Transport book of Country Walks. The countryside was magic when I was a child – the wayside flowers, the patterns. It’s always inspired me, creatively.

What has changed is that I now lead a much busier, more sociable life. There are 31 book groups in Steyning, although I only go to one of them. There’s also a film club, a community orchard and a festival. I’m very keen on independent bookshops. I let our local one sell signed copies of my books via my website

And, at 5pm, I can say ‘Oh, I need a bit of exercise’ and I don’t have to get in a car. I just go out and start walking and suddenly I’m climbing over a stile.

It’s a bit of a myth, isn’t it, that the countryside is lonely and lacking in culture?

I suppose it depends where you want to be and what you want. Some people are happy in a really isolated hamlet. I wouldn’t want that. Steyning is very, very thriving. There are actually 80 shops, including cafés. I’ve been really surprised by how bustle-y it is.

You’re a patron of Artlink Central, a charity helping disadvantaged people to be creative. How important are such projects?

Art and literature should be available to everyone. I’m also a patron of Storybook Dads, which gets prisoners to record tales for their children so they remain familiar to them. That’s led to bedtime reading in families where it didn’t happen before, stronger bonds and a lower chance of reoffending.

How important are picture books in staving off print’s challenge from the internet?

Very. Younger children much prefer physical books to ebooks and the children’s market is 25% of total book sales.

The range of illustrations can be like a child’s first art gallery. For them, the actual thing of turning pages – ‘Ooh, I wonder what’s on the next one’ – is much more interactive. It’s nicer holding a print of a photo than just having an image on your phone.

The Ugly Five by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler is out now. Buy it from the Saga Book Shop

The Highway Rat will be shown on BBC One on Christmas Day at 4.45 pm. See listings for more details.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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