We’re super excited about our interview feature today mamas, as we managed to sit down with award-winning children’s author Julia Donaldson for a quick chat! If her name’s not completely familiar, we’re sure her work will be: The Gruffalo, What the Ladybird Heard, Room on the Broom…ring any bells? She’s coming over for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature where you’ll be able to meet her in person and we talked to her below about her incredible career, the desert city and how her work has impacted her fans. Check it all out below!
Welcome to Dubai for the first time! What are your plans?
I’m really pleased to be visiting Dubai – I have heard so many authors talk about the festival and I am looking forward to experiencing it all first hand!
Your first book A Squash and a Squeeze was also a song. How did that eventually become a book deal?
What happened was that an editor who had heard the song 12 years earlier (on a BBC tape) couldn’t get it out of her head, and when she was casting round for ideas for a picture-book text, she did some detective work and contacted me via the BBC. I was thrilled that the words of my song were to become a book, though I did my best to play it cool as if this sort of thing happened to me all the time.
The Gruffalo is a story about a little mouse who imagines a monster (with terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws) that turns out to be real. Where did you get your inspiration from for the Gruffalo?
The idea for The Gruffalo came from an old Chinese story. I think the original story is about a fox and a tiger, but in the version I was familiar with, a little girl escapes being eaten by a tiger by claiming to be the fearsome Queen of the Jungle and inviting him to walk behind her. The tiger agrees and then, seeing all the animals running away, thinks they are scared of the girl, and runs away himself. I decided to have a mouse instead of a girl as the trickster character, and to introduce some specific woodland predators – the fox, owl and snake. Then I couldn’t make the tiger fit into my rhyme scheme so I decided to create an imaginary monster whose name could rhyme with whatever I liked. Enter the Gruffalo!
The Gruffalo has been translated into more than 50 languages and made into a touring stage play and an animated film. Were you heavily involved in the play or the film?
I really like the dramatizations of my books (including What the Ladybird Heard, Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo and Stick Man) by theatre companies such as Tall Stories and Scamp, even though I didn’t have a lot to do with devising them. I have been more involved with the animations by Magic Light (The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom) which I think are terrific. They’re all very true to the original stories but with plenty of additional comic touches and scary bits. The producers and animators consult me and Axel Scheffler (the illustrator) throughout the whole process. Two of these films were Oscar-nominated, which was a great thrill.
You grew up in a very musical household – can you tell us about your childhood and some of your earliest memories?
I lived in a tall Victorian terraced house with my granny, aunt, uncle, parents, sister Mary and cat Geoffrey. Our father played the cello and our mother sang in a choir, so there was always music in that house, and Mary and I carried on the tradition by learning the piano and joining the Children’s Opera Group.
You used to be a songwriter – do you still write songs and which ones would our readers recognize?
Yes. I often write songs to go with my stories, which you can hear on the audio versions. And there are three songbooks which are popular in schools. They are: The Gruffalo and Other Songs, Room and the Broom and Other Songs, and The Gruffalo’s Child and Other Songs. A lot of readers tell me that one of their favourite songs is “Steering a Great Big Trolley” (from “The Gruffalo Song and Other Songs”). When I’m signing books my husband often sings to the signing queue, so plenty of readers become familiar with the songs that way.
Which book did you get the most pleasure out of writing and do you have a favourite book?
The books I enjoyed writing most were the three collections of stories about naughty Princess Mirror-Belle, who comes out of a mirror and is very boastful. I am perhaps most proud of my teenage novel, Running on the Cracks. Of the picture books, two of my current favourites are The Highway Rat and Jack and the Flumflum Tree.
You make children’s imaginations come alive – my daughter is nearly 3 and has loved the Gruffalo and Room on the Broom since we first read it to her. Once we reassured her that the Gruffalo doesn’t live in her bedroom and how gentle he actually is, she enjoys reading it even more and actually recites her own version – do you have any funny stories you can share of children’s experiences with the Gruffalo or with any of your other characters?
I’m not sure how gentle the Gruffalo really is! But do go on reassuring your daughter. I’m often told authoritatively by parents (who love putting on different voices for the characters) that the Gruffalo is Australian or from Birmingham, or that the crooks in What the Ladybird Heard are from Liverpool or Spain. It tickles me that there are so many different interpretations of my characters’ backgrounds.
You spend a lot of time replying to fan letters and answering questions. What’s the most common request or the funniest letter that you have received?
They always want to know how long it takes to write a book, which is like asking how long is a piece of string. Sometimes they just want to tell me about themselves, like the little girl who wrote, “Dear Julia Donaldson, I’m rubbish at handstands because I keep falling over.”
Julia Donaldson will be coming to Dubai and bringing the Gruffalo to life as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. For information and to buy tickets please visit www.emirateslitfest.com