Julia Donaldson was our author of the Spring Term 2013
I grew up in a tall Victorian London house with my parents, grandmother, aunt, uncle, younger sister Mary and cat Geoffrey (who was really a prince in disguise. Mary and I would argue about which of us would marry him).
Mary and I were always creating imaginary characters and mimicking real ones, and I used to write shows and choreograph ballets for us. A wind-up gramophone wafted out Chopin waltzes.
I studied Drama and French at Bristol University, where I met Malcolm, a guitar-playing medic to whom I’m now married.
Before Malcolm and I had our family, we used to go busking together and I would write special songs for each country; the best one was in Italian about pasta.
The busking led to a career in singing and songwriting, mainly for children’s television. I became an expert at writing to order on such subjects as guinea pigs, window-cleaning and horrible smells. “We want a song about throwing crumpled-up wrapping paper into the bin” was a typical request from the BBC.
I also continued to write “grown-up” songs and perform them in folk clubs and on the radio, and have recently released two CDs of these songs. One of these songs, sung by Malcolm and called “Cochon Blues” was played as one of my choices when I was on the Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs.
One of my television songs, A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE, was made into a book in 1993, with illustrations by the wonderful Axel Scheffler. It was great to hold the book in my hand without it vanishing in the air the way the songs did. This prompted me to unearth some plays I’d written for a school reading group, and since then I’ve had 20 plays published. Most children love acting and it’s a tremendous way to improve their reading.
My real breakthrough was THE GRUFFALO, again illustrated by Axel. We work separately - he’s in London and I’m in Glasgow - but he sends me letters with lovely funny pictures on the envelopes.
I really enjoy writing verse, even though it can be fiendishly difficult. I used to memorise poems as a child and it means a lot to me when parents tell me their child can recite one of my books.
Funnily enough, I find it harder to write not in verse, though I feel I am now getting the hang of it! THE GIANTS AND THE JONESES is a novel for 7-11 year olds, and I have written three books of stories about the anarchic PRINCESS MIRROR-BELLE who appears from the mirror and disrupts the life of an otherwise ordinary eight-year-old. For teenagers there is a novel called RUNNING ON THE CRACKS.
When I’m not writing I am often performing, at book festivals and in theatres. I really enjoy getting the children in the audience to help me act out the stories and sing the songs. When Malcolm can take time off from the hospital he and his guitar come too. and it feels as if we’ve come full circle - back to busking.
Tea in bed. Second cup.
Dislodge cats.Get up.
Son to school. Spouse to work.
Sit at desk – mustn’t shirk.
Scratch head. Dream up snail.
Maybe team her up with whale?
Chew pen. What next?
Can’t think. Feel vexed.
Feed cats. Open post.
Read it, over slice of toast.
Little boy wants to know
Date of birth of Gruffalo.
Little girl wonders why
Giant gave away his tie.
Out to shops. Get idea
(Big grin, ear to ear):
Brilliant climax – whale gets beached!
(Rhyme a problem . . . reached? Beseeched?
Leeched? Well never mind, just now.)
Snail then rescues whale – but how???
Back home, get stuck.
Go off snail. Consider duck.
Phone rings. Who is it?
School, requesting author visit.
Check diary . . . shocked to see
“Monday, Brookwood Library”.
That’s today! Leap in car.
Thank goodness, not far.
Tell a story, act and sing.
Kids join in with everything.
(Teacher sits there marking books,
Blind to my accusing looks.)
Answer questions. Back to house.
Joined by son, later spouse.
Open bottle. Cook salmon.
Practise piano. Play Backgammon.
Have bath - that’s when
Inspiration strikes again:
Snail could learn to write with slime!
(Quite an easy word to rhyme.)
Crawls on blackboard, leaves a trail . . .
Children run and save the whale.
Story planned! Tomorrow, start
Writing it – the easy part.
It was a great honour last year when I was chosen to be the Children’s Laureate. My term runs from June 2011 until June 2013 and is proving to be an exciting adventure, often to unknown places. You can find out more on the Children’s Laureate website, which is
www.childrenslaureate.org.uk but here is a summary of what I’m up to:
I opened a book and in I strode.
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.
I’m wearing the cloak, I’ve slipped on the ring,
I’ve swallowed the magic potion.
I’ve fought with a dragon, dined with a king
And dived in a bottomless ocean.
I opened a book and made some friends.
I shared their tears and laughter
And followed their road with its bumps and bends
To the happily ever after.
I finished my book and out I came.
The cloak can no longer hide me.
My chair and my house are just the same,
But I have a book inside me.
And here is my Libraries poem:
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 schoolkids 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.
Q When did you decide to be a writer?
A 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.
Q When did you start to write books?
A In 1993, when one of my songs, “A Squash and a Squeeze” was made into a book. Before that I just wrote songs for children’s television.
Q Where do you get your ideas?
A Anywhere and everywhere: things that happen to my children; memories of my own childhood; things people say; places I go to; old folk tales and fairy stories. The hard part for me is not getting the idea, it is turning it into a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Q How long does it take to write a book?
A It can take months or years for the idea to grow in my head and for me to plan the book. This is a very important part. Then, when I am ready it could take anything between a week (for a picture book) and six months (for a chapter book) to write it. For THE GRUFFALO the ideas and planning stage lasted a year (obviously I was doing other things too!) and the actual writing took about two weeks.
Q Do you write with a pencil?
A When I’m writing a rhyming book I start off with a pencil or pen, writing in a big exercise book and doing lots of doodles along the way. If the book isn’t going to rhyme I often write it on the computer.
Q Where do you write?
A In my head when I’m in the bath or out for a walk. (I do have my own study, too, and sometimes I write on trains or in the library.)
Q How do you find an illustrator?
A The publisher knows lots of illustrators and they choose the one which they think would suit my words best. (They usually ask me first if I like the illustrator’s work.)
Q Where did the inspiration for the Gruffalo come from?
A The book was going to be about a tiger but I couldn’t get anything to rhyme with “tiger”. Then I thought up the lines: “Silly old Fox, doesn’t he know/There’s no such thing as a _________________ ” and somehow the word “gruffalo” came to mind to fill the gap. The gruffalo looks the way he does because various things that just happened to rhyme (like toes and nose, and black and back)
Q Do you and Axel Scheffler work closely together on your picture books?
A No. I don’t breathe down his neck and he doesn’t breathe down mine! (In any case, I live in Glasgow and he’s in London!) I write a story and send it to the publisher. Then the publisher sends it to Axel to illustrate. I do get to make comments on his rough sketches but try not to interfere too much – and anyway, I wouldn’t want to as they’re always so funny and brilliant.
Q Do you like being an author?
A I find the actual writing quite hard work. I often get stuck, or feel that I’m plodding along in an uninspired way. But when I realise that a story is working after all it’s a very exciting feeling – and I love doing all the polishing touches at the end (or “tweaking” as publishers call it). It’s lovely when the first rough illustrations arrive and I see how my characters are going to look.
Q How many books have you written?
A I have written 167 books. (66 of them can be bought in shops, and the other 101 are for schools.)
Q Which one of your books is your favourite?
A It keeps changing. At the moment I have two: “The Snail and the Whale” for younger children and “The Giants and the Joneses” for older ones.
Q What is your favourite book (not by you)?
A One of my favourites is “Watership Down” by Richard Adams, an exciting story about rabbits.
Q What are your hobbies?
A Walking, cycling, playing the piano, singing. I’m also interested in wild flowers and fungi.
Q Do you have any pets?
A I have a black cat called Goblin whose favourite hobby is going in the garden, getting his paws muddy and then walking all over whatever I have just been writing.