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Julia Donaldson: her own path

The wonder, on meeting children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, is which of her most successful book characters she is most like; the Mouse or the Gruffalo?

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The first guess is the Mouse, a rather clever but gentle creature who creates fantastical beings in his head which become real, who walks his own path through life’s forest.

Donaldson, after all, grew up in a large Hampstead house looked after by cello-playing, singing parents, where the kids were encouraged to run wild with their imaginations.

A free spirit, in her student days she would sling guitar over shoulder and busk on the cafe pavements of Europe.

But is there something of the Gruffalo (below right) about the lady? Not that she’s a monster; her 62-year-old face is decidedly free of warts, bad teeth and jaundiced eyes, although with 157 books to her credit and 10.5 million sales of the Gruffalo alone, she is certainly a giant in the literary world. Yet, you imagine she must have some of the teeth of her hairy creation, to cope with her own woodland predators; the licensing agents, the theatre producers and the publishers?

At the Scottish Youth Theatre complex in Glasgow (where Donaldson and guitar-playing paediatrician husband Malcolm have been working in perfect harmony with children to promote book reading) the first impression of the writer is of someone rather soft and unthreatening. The electric blue chiffon dress and flat shoes are 1960s Joan Baez. Minutes before she’d certainly displayed gentle Mouse-like cleverness when dealing with a theatre full of kids. 

“I always create a Question Chair like a throne and the children come and sit in it,” she informs. “It makes the chair seem important, but they don’t know the real reason is because I’m hard of hearing and it gets them close to me.”

Her confident performance -- singing, directing and telling stories -- reveals perhaps not quite a Gruffalo-sized ego, but one large enough to make her want to be an actress?

“As a child I wanted to be Dame Judi Dench,” she reveals. “I actually did understudy the Fairies in a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic in which Judi played Hermia. And I got to watch the show every night, dreaming of flying onto the stage.

“By the time I went busking I wanted to act. Later, I auditioned to be a presenter on (children’s show) Play Away. But at the time, the producers were more interested in my writing, and so I sent in a tape of songs.”

That led to a book commission for the Squash and a Squeeze in 1993, which rescued Donaldson from a life of part-time teaching. Now, the woman who lives in Bearsden is equally at home as a performer and a writer.

“The best bit of my job, I think, is the in between stage when you adapt a book for the stage, and work out how to do it. Malcolm eggs me on to perform the most unperformable books, like the one I’ve just written about the mermaid who walks on her hands.

He says we should train up a little girl to actually walk on her hands -- and I think ‘Oh, dear!’” She adds in soft voice framed in a half smile, “He’s taking early retirement to come up with more stage ideas.”

But if Donaldson is a natural actor, it’s not reflected in her rather subdued conversation delivery. Perhaps she doesn’t do Excited? “When I wrote my first song for Play School the BBC offered me £12, or £10 but with a performing rights fee every time the song was performed. I chose the latter and later I got a cheque from PRS for £60. I danced around the room that day and then bought a cane chair to celebrate. And years later (1999) when the Gruffalo won the Smarties prize I was again dancing around the room. But I don’t dance too often.”

She adds, quickly with a circumspect smile, “Although being made the Children’s Laureate was special and this year I was awarded a Doctor of Letters from my old university (Bristol). Next year, Glasgow is going to make me one too. Yet, my son Alastair, who has a proper PhD, teases me mercilessly about this, says he can’t quite remember what I wrote my thesis on.”

Perhaps career excitements are lessened because there have been so many successes? Or because there was an early expectation of success, no glass ceiling, thanks to an encouraging middle-class, become-what-you-will background? “What do you mean?” she asks, in mini-Gruffallo voice. Well, no-one ever suggested you should become a typist?

“That’s true. And I went to an all-girls’ school, which helped. Mixed schools can mean the boys and girls are limited to certain subjects. In an all-girls, you are not defined by your sex. And in a mixed school the boy-girl thing can get in the way.”

When did the boy-girl thing begin to get in your way? “Oh, I don’t know,” she mumbles, sensing the forest has darkened and is keen to stay away from this troublesome creature.

An easier question. Does success -- she picked up an MBE this year -- sit uncomfortably? “It’s good I suppose, because I’m patron of ArtLink Central, which is Scottish and also Book Bug, where books are given to children at birth.” Yes, but she is extremely wealthy. The Gruffalo has been translated into Breton and Faroese. (And work flows in. Donaldson reveals she’s in talks with CBeebies to make Play Away-like programmes with songs and rhymes.)

 

Does it create a conscience? “I have a kind of plan,” she offers, with mouse-like consideration, perhaps now fearing the Journalist to be a Fox in disguise. “I have two sons who are at the stage of starting their families and needing to buy houses and I’m helping them out with that. And when they’re settled I plan to, well, give more of my money away. I think Dolly Parton is great. She came from a very poor background and now she gives away half her earnings to buy books for kids. Isn’t that fantastic?”

Donaldson’s animation levels increase on the subject of library closures (she’s due to meet Ed Miliband soon to argue against Brent Council’s decision to close six libraries), or talking about the book business. “I do feel bad about the book trade at the moment. There are so few independent bookshops and the large chains offer these three-for-two deals. I know my own books form part of these deals, but I still don’t like the fact there are piles and piles of some books, and one of another. It’s the same in supermarkets.”

She is also happy to talk about the themes in her books, concepts such as introducing deafness to children via Freddie and the Fairy, with its deaf Fairy who speaks in rhyme and the mumbling little boy who mixes his words. “There is a funny side to deafness and you’d be horribly PC to pretend there isn’t.”

But the writer cleverly evades questions about politics, bankers and Scotland’s future. And the more personal pages of her own book aren’t for opening, certainly not the story of her first son’s suicide, brought about by mental illness.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she says, emphatically. But she did speak publicly about the death of Hamish on Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs? “That was different. That was a whole thing I’d planned well in advance and decided to do the story of my life. It would have been wrong not to talk about him then.”

Writers are informed by their experiences. Does she watch political programmes, TV soaps and find ideas emerge? “Perhaps subconsciously,” she says. “I keep planning to keep a writer’s notebook and never get around to it.

But there might be something that happens to one of the children, such as my older son (Hamish) used to have this imaginary friend who was really his reflection in the mirror, and that was a big part of our lives when he was a little boy. Then 15 years later I was casting ideas around for a new character and I drew on that, and she became a girl, Princess Mirror-belle.”

But if you’re a world famous author, flak comes your way. Can you take criticism? “You get less of that in the children’s book world, as you would say, in politics. But what does make me smart is if I see someone has written a comment about one of my books on the Amazon website which reads ‘Not a patch on her other books. I’m taking this to the charity shop.’ It hurts.”

What of author Robert Muchamore’s criticism of her children’s laureate appointment, when he complained she was “cosy”? “I don’t really want to comment on that,” says the Mouse, running for cover, then peeking her head up. “That was just someone a bit ... I’d rather not say. It was a misguided comment -- and it got the person into trouble.”

Mouse or Gruffalo? Donaldson displays characteristics of both, the guile, the Zen-like mastery of the Mouse and hints of the big performer that is the Gruffalo, yet she keeps her big smiles for the stage and biggest thoughts to herself. But she’s a very nice lady all the same.

The Meet Our Authors programme is sponsored by Scottish Friendly and run by the Scottish Book Trust, scottishbooktrust.com 

Career high: Becoming the Children’s Laureate this year.

Career low: Trying to badger various producers to use  my songs and being told either “we’re not yet commissioning” or “it’s  too late -- we’ve finished recording”.

Favourite meal: Coq au vin.

Favourite holiday location: It’s a secret (I don’t want everyone to go there).

Favourite film: Le Maitre D’Ecole (Claude Berri).

Favourite book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Best personality trait: Responsiveness.

Worst personality trait: Impatience.

Best advice received: Make-up before you go to bed. 

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