Talking rhymes and writers block with Julia Donaldson

Visiting the Queen and taking to the stage. It’s all in a day’s work for world-renowned children’s author, Julia Donaldson

Children’s author Julia Donaldson has published over 180 books, sold worldwide. Picture courtesy of Alex Rumford

“You just want a good, clever storyline,” says children’s author Julia Donaldson, attempting to describe how she comes up with her seemingly bottomless treasure trove of story ideas. “I’m not thinking about the children when I plan, I’m thinking about the story.” She is quite often influenced, she says, by traditional tales from around the world – The Grufflo, for instance, is loosely based on a Chinese folktale about a fox who borrows the terror of a tiger.

We’re chatting by phone as Donaldson packs for her much publicised Hong Kong appearance later this month, where she will be appearing on stage in Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts as part of KidsFest 2017. She says she is looking forward to this, her third trip to the territory.

“I’d like to try and do some hiking this time, and visit the outlying islands. I love the vibrancy of Hong Kong, but I also like the feel of the countryside there.”

Donaldson’s children’s stories are a global publishing phenomenon and are beloved by children everywhere. Bestsellers include The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom and Stickman, to quote just a few. At the last count, her publishing tally came to a whopping 184 books.

Donaldson was born in London in 1948 and grew up with her parents, sister, aunt, uncle and grandmother in a three-storey house near leafy Hampstead Heath to the north of the city. She recalls enjoying reading with her granny and aunt in their rooms upstairs – early influences include Lewis Carroll and the nonsense poems of Edward Lear.

“I liked reading as a child,” she says. “We were very lucky as there was a good library locally and also lots of secondhand bookshops for me to spend my pocket money in. I had a friend who also read a lot and we’d go to each others houses and swap books.”

As any child will tell you, Donaldson’s books are well known for their rhymes. It turns out her family was a musical one, she herself played the cello, both parents were members of the Hampstead Music Club and also played instruments and summers were spent putting on musical shows with her sister, Mary.

“I grew up with a granny who read to us a lot and parents who sang, so there were always lots of books and music around,” she recalls.

Later, as a student in Paris, she busked to make money while studying for her degree, and then again post-university with her future husband Malcolm as they travelled their way across America. On their return to London, the pair would play in restaurants with Donaldson composing the songs. She confesses these days to enjoying performing at book festivals and she still writes plays.

Given her love of performance, she admits to a surprising trepidation when reading aloud to her six grandchildren. “My own children were teenagers when I first started writing children’s books, so I was more likely to perform the stories in public to an audience of many at various book festivals. So the idea of reading one-on-one is quite a frightening one – I did have a slightly galling experience with my oldest grandson recently. He said, “actually Granny, I prefer this book,” picking up a Toys R Us catalogue. I didn’t read it! Actually, I prefer not to read my own books when I’m with the grandchildren, I’d rather investigate what else is out there. I’ve recently been visiting my son and reading a lot of Dr Seuss to his children. And also a lovely book called Biscuit Bear by Mini Grey.”

With regards her own stories, she says she is never short of ideas. “There are several stages to my writing process, which starts with a little germ of an idea which might stay buried for a log while, because it’s often very hard to know where to go with an initial thought. A good example is The Detective Dog – for a while I’d wanted to write a story about smell, so I decided it should involve a dog because they have a very sensitive sense of smell. The idea changed and developed as I went – originally the dog was going to get kidnapped and find his way home through his sense of smell, or maybe the child could get kidnapped and some sort of adventure ensue – lots of thoughts go through my mind at this stage. In the end I decided that the dog, through listening and being read to by the children, could lead the children to the books that had been stolen from the school and find the book thief.

“It’s only when I’ve got the whole story in my mind that I sit down and start writing. In terms of the actual words, I tend to write in a stream of consciousness, noting down good rhymes and phrases along the way – throwing some away and keeping others, and gradually crafting the story.”

She admits that writing in rhyme can be maddeningly difficult. “But at least there’s a discipline. I enjoy writing in both rhyme and prose – Spinderella, a recent book about a spider who learns to count, is written in prose just because I wanted it to be very, very clear.”

Does she ever suffer from writer’s block, I wonder? “I’m lucky in that I’m not tied to a book contract where I have to produce so many stories a year or whatever. If I don’t have any ideas, I don’t write. I do find walking helps untangle thoughts, though, or wallowing in a nice warm bath.”

Of course you don’t produce this volume of work without some sort of official recognition, and in 2011 Donaldson was appointed Children’s Laureate. In the same year, she received an MBE for services to literature.

“That was lovely, going up to Buckingham Palace. It’s a very well-oiled machine, you sit listening to the Queen’s musicians playing in the Minstrels Gallery while you wait. Actually, I could have sat there all day because there are such lovely pictures on the wall.

“The Queen is refreshingly formidable – people tend to be so gushy thees days, but she had a definite air of majesty about her which I quite liked.”

As Children’s Laureate, Donaldson carried out a lot of work both to promote libraries and to help deaf children. “When I’ve done shows for children, you sometimes get a signer on stage and I’ve always been fascinated by signing. It was an area I wanted to find out a bit more about. I have a hearing problem myself and have to wear a hearing aid.

“Through a charity called Life & Deaf, I was invited to help a group of deaf children make up a story. I managed to get the ensuing result get published as What The Jackdaw Saw. The children were so chuffed – at the launch they acted it out with homemade masks.

“But the other thing I found out is that deaf children love to see a character in a book also wearing a hearing aid. Nick Sharratt (one of Donaldson’s illustrators) is very keen on being inclusive and so he started adding deaf children here and there in his illustrations.”

How closely does she work with her illustrators? “I just hand over my work – the image of us working side by side is  a popular one but a long way from what actually happens. We work quite separately. Although having said that, Lydia Monks does sometimes put ideas in my head. She encouraged me to write about a mermaid which ended up as The Singing Mermaid.

“What I really enjoy is when a book is finished and the illustrators join me on stage for a performance. Axel (Scheffler) is a great actor.”

Donaldson has also enjoyed success on the small screen, with recent adaptation of The Gruffly, The Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom and Stick Man. She says she particularly enjoyed the animated version of Stick Man, which appeared on British television last Christmas. “The producers got straight into the story. Stick Man has less momentum than the other books and is quite repetitive, so I think they did really well to give it a bit of a shake and build it up to a climax.”

She says the current show in Hong Kong is very scripted, so there will be less opportunity to deviate from the script than there is at the numerous book festivals and launches that she attends. “It’s a proper play about an actor visiting a library, although I’m sure there will be a few topical references thrown in for its Hong Kong debut. I’m really looking forward to it.”