Originally published in Fest, July 2011.
“Writing can be quite a lonely process,” says recently anointed children’s laureate and Book Festival guest selector Julia Donaldson. But a glance at her programme of events might suggest otherwise: it is crammed with guests with whom she has collaborated, from the now-iconic Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler to the “delightful” Lydia Monks, who will be drawing live for the audience.
Donaldson is keen to move beyond her own speciality of cutesy rhyming picture books for the under-10s, and has also lined up teenage novelists Kate De Goldi and Ruth Eastham for an event, Quirks of the Teenage Mind, which she thinks “is likely to provoke some debate… I hope there’ll actually be some teenagers there, not just adults!” All in all, she has produced an impressively wide-ranging and appealing set of talks and performances for young (and old) lit fans to devour.
Indeed, as children’s laureate, Donaldson sees one of her big challenges as that of making literature more accessible. Perhaps suprisingly, given the highly visual nature of her work, she is pushing for her books to be produced in braille—she talks about the “shortage of reading material there is for blind children”—and in more tactile formats. Living Paintings, for example, have produced a tactile version of The Gruffalo with raised illustrations so “children feel the mouse and the Gruffalo and the snake.”
Donaldson feels there is yet more room for exciting developments in this field and is running an event during the Festival with the RNIB, where she hopes that there will be “a debate about the needs of those with hearing and visual impairment. I’ve actually written a book about a deaf fairy [Freddie and the Fairy] and that’s what I’ll be reading at the event… The book is going to be transcribed into braille for the occasion, so that’s something I’m really looking forward to; something really new and different.”
Such a consideration of how her work will—or could be—be performed is clearly an important part of Donaldson’s writing process: “I’ve never once imagined anyone reading one of my books silently. When I’ve got my draft version and I want to give it to my husband or sons to see how it sounds, I won’t get them to read it silently, I’ll get them to read it out loud to me, and if they stumble or the stress isn’t how I’d imagined I’ll take a close look at whatever line it is again. I very much feel that my writing is meant to be performed and I think that is what I enjoy most, thinking ‘how will I get this from page to stage?’. It’s really challenging and exciting.”
Donaldson’s effervescent approach and catchy stories-cum-songs seem to coax even the most reticent children out of their shells. “It’s very interesting, sometimes” she says, “if I choose someone to take part, the teacher often says afterwards that they never would have expected them to get involved; that they’re normally very shy or very naughty. It’s surprising how children rise to the occasion and gain confidence through acting. And I think that some children think they don’t like books and words and pages and so on, and sometimes the meaning of certain stories can just come out more clearly when they are acted.”
Herein, perhaps, lies the secret behind the enduring appeal of Donaldson’s work: an inherent understanding of what children want and need from literature. It is no surprise that as a child she was a voracious reader, devouring poetry, especially Lear and Carroll, who she feels shaped her writing.
She was also a huge fan of Richmal Crompton’s William books: “William was heavily sarcastic, you know, he says ‘Hah! I like that!’. He’s very rhetorical and I was very impressed and would sort of emulate him when I had arguments with my parents.” Traces remain in Donaldson’s own work: her clever little mouse in The Gruffalo, for example, proves an able and witty adversary for much bigger foes. As for 2011’s newly-crowned children’s laureate, she seems about ready to take on anyone.