Let’s begin at the very beginning, with a little quiz, if I may. Have you heard of the witch in a “very tall hat/And long ginger hair which she wore in a plait”, the one who was kind and made room, for all sorts of creatures on her broom? Sounds familiar? Good. Let’s try another one now. Who’s that creature with “knobbly knees and turned-out toes and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose”, up against a mouse, taking a stroll in a “deep dark wood” away from his house? If you are waving your arms wildly in acknowledgment, well, hello, you must be a parent, too, possibly to a toddler or an early reader, hooked on to the wondrous universe of British writer Julia Donaldson’s picture books, and, in particular, to the Gruffalo, that goof of a monster who is outwitted by a tiny mouse. This story is for you.
On a sun-blanched winter morning, Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium is a jam of excitable children and their parents. It’s the second (and last) show of The Gruffalo and Friends in the capital, featuring Donaldson and her husband, retired paediatrician, Malcolm Donaldson. The next day they are set to travel to Kolkata, and then onwards to Mumbai and Jaipur, for various literary events, before ending their visit to the country with a vacation in Kerala. The Donaldsons have flown in a couple of days earlier, Julia, nursing a throat infection that has made her cancel several of her media engagements. When she comes on stage, though, there’s a magical transformation. The quiet woman speaking in hushed tones makes way for a storyteller who knows the pulse of her whimsical audience. As with her books, in her performances, too, Donaldson does not speak down to her audience, even though their average age is not more than six. She shushes them gently, explains to them the rules of engagement — she’s going to call on them for various acts, but only the ones who raise their hands and don’t leave their seats have a shot at joining her on stage. Afterwards, in just a little over an hour, with minimal props and together with Malcolm, she sweeps them away with music, songs, and jaunty capers from her many books, Room on the Broom, Stick Man, Highway Rat, What the Ladybird Heard, Superworm, and, of course, The Gruffalo.
In the world of picture books, Donaldson is less of a mouse and more of a giant cult. Before JK Rowling became Britain’s highest-selling children’s author, Donaldson had been there. Her books with long-time collaborator, illustrator Axel Scheffler, published by Pan Macmillan and Scholastic, have sold over 48 million copies worldwide. The Gruffalo, her third book, and monster hit, that came out in 1999, has been translated into 75 languages, including Afrikaans, Manx and Icelandic, and has been adapted for the screen and for stage, apart from spawning a hefty merchandise franchise.
The funny part is, says Donaldson, she had never set out to write about the monster in the first place. “It was going to be a play based on a traditional Chinese tale about a tiger, but then I decided to write it as a picture book instead. I couldn’t get anything to rhyme with ‘tiger’, so I came up with the Gruffalo,” she says.
An ear for rhyme and a keen sense of rhythm, though, were the pivots for Donaldson’s literary and musical career. Born into a large family in Hampstead, she grew up in a “tall house…with my grandmother — also called Julia — aunt, uncle, mother, father, sister Mary and cat Geoffrey.” Her parents were both musically inclined — her father, an academic, who did a pathbreaking study on genetics, played the cello; her mother sang in the local choir. “The music I grew up with was mainly classical until I was in my teens and keen on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Mary and I both learned the piano and we joined the children’s opera group, acting and singing in the shows they put on,” she says.
There were plenty of stories, too, and, poetry. “When I was five, my father gave me a fat navy blue book called The Book of A Thousand Poems, which I still have. I used to go round reciting them, and a bit later, started making up some of my own,” says the 69-year-old, who was Britain’s Children’s Laureate between 2011 and 2013.
At 12, she found herself in London, at the Old Vic theatre, as an understudy to the fairies in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “(Actors) Judi Dench and Tom Courtney were both in it, as well as lots of other up-and-coming big names. I was totally stage-struck and sat in the wings listening to the play every night. I soon knew it off by heart (and I got to go on five times!),” she says.
She had wanted to be a writer — or, rather, a poet — since the time she was five, but the exhilaration of the stage made her change her mind. “I decided I wanted to be an actress and I went to study drama at the (Bristol) University,” she says. There, she met a young medic called Malcolm, who shared her love for music and the stage. Together, they went busking in France, Italy and the US. “That’s how I started writing songs, and when I later sent a tape of them to the BBC, they started commissioning me to write for children’s programmes,” she says. Later, the two of them would marry and raise three sons together.
In fact, Donaldson’s literary career took off rather late. In 1991, when she was 45 years old, publishing house Metheun got in touch with her seeking permission to turn a nearly two-decades-old song, A Squash and a Squeeze, about an old lady who finds her little cottage a tight squeeze, into a picture book. “I used to write lots of adults’ songs, too, and sing them in folk clubs, but it was the children’s ones that there was a market for,” she says.
The publisher roped in Scheffler, too, a serendipitous coming together of a writer and illustrator, who have, since then, delivered a prolific bunch of award-winning picture books together. “We still work quite separately: he usually has no idea what I’m writing about until the publisher sends him the text, and then I more or less let him get on with the illustrations according to how he sees the characters. But we do often meet up at book festivals, appearing in shows and signing together, and we have several times, toured Germany, acting out the stories in German,” says Donaldson.
On stage, Julia is a natural, as is Malcolm, the two of them complementing each other in unspoken harmony. At the end of her performance in Delhi, while she sat signing copies of her books, Malcolm stood at the head of the queue, guitar in hand, singing Julia’s songs to keep the children entertained. He knows most of the words; after all, he is her first reader — “And a nice encouraging one,” says Julia. When he finally runs out of books to sing from, he switches to an old favourite, Video Killed the Radio Star. “I want them to have a good time even while they wait. So, I sing and hope to keep things fun,” he says.
No wonder then, that when she is not writing or spending time with their seven grandchildren, the Donaldsons can be seen at various performance venues. “In 2017, we have done 70 shows. These range from big theatres through book festivals to smaller school events. Last year’s events included a stint in Madrid, where we learned to perform the stories in Spanish,” says Donaldson. Wherever they go, their motley cast is bulked up with a member or two from Donaldson’s local publishing offices. In Delhi, her agent Felicity Drew from the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency, and Beatrice May, publicity manager at Macmillan UK, who are travelling with her, take a turn on stage, as do members of the staff from Scholastic India. “It’’s great fun working with Julia because you never know what you are going to be doing that day! ‘Shall we be a frog today?’ ‘Oh wait, perhaps, a cat first’”, says Drew, with a laugh, when we meet later in the evening.
For Donaldson, the stage pantomimes are as important as her writing. “Writing is more solitary and can be deeply satisfying (though often very frustrating!), whereas, on stage, it’s great to have the buzz from the audience of readers,” she says.
She writes in a study that looks out on the bustling high street and provides her with “lots of distractions”, but her best ideas come “when out walking or in the bath”. Right now, there are a whole lot of projects brewing. “I’ve just finished a new story for Scheffler to illustrate and I’m devising a show for the Edinburgh Festival, which we will perform 25 times this summer,” says the writer, whose reading list includes novelists such as Sarah Waters, Rose Tremaine and Kent Haruf.
The universe of her picture books is largely populated by animals — mice and rabbits, snails, whales, owls and snakes, among others. Donaldson uses them like a fabulist — each character often represents human qualities, but there’s a reason why children — and parents — never feel weighed down by stealthy doses of moral lessons. Donaldson’s narratives are rarely ever didactic; her tone is upbeat, and, if there are virtues that she upholds, they are traits such as foresight, curiosity and kindness, learning to think on one’s feet in the face of danger or disruption, and, always, claiming agency for one’s own life. Not for her the gendered stereotypes of damsels in distress and knights in shining armours to the rescue.
During the book-signing in Delhi, Donaldson sits with a variety of marker pens in front of her, letting her young readers choose the colour they want her signature in. A young girl indicates a pink one. Donaldson looks at her kindly and says, “I am a little tired of pink. Shall we try purple instead?” The young girl stares back for a moment and then nods.
Donaldson’s stories are for everyone.