The Gruffalo interview
Queen of kids’ fiction, mum of three and Gruffalo creator, Julia Donaldson, talks exclusively to Time Out Kids about her very first full-length novel
With her crazy rhyming couplets, quirky refrains and funny storylines, Julia Donaldson has managed the impossible and captured not just the imaginations of millions of youngsters around the world, but those of their parents too. We caught up with her for a chat.
You recently published Running on the Cracks, a novel for young adults and a departure from your usual picture books. Why did you decide to write a young adult novel at this stage?
About 10 years ago, when my youngest son was 13 and doing a paper round – and also going through a Goth phase – I was asked to write a play for teenagers. I had the idea of a paper boy discovering a secret behind one of the doors he pushed the papers through. In the end I didn’t use that idea for the play but saved it up, and it gradually grew into Running on the Cracks.
Are you planning to write more young adult fiction now?
I did enjoy the process. But I don’t feel I can just churn them out. Writing songs and picture books comes more naturally to me. I’d love to write a psychological thriller for adults – something realistic and modern-day, a bit like one of Ruth Rendell’s non-detective stories which I admire a lot. Again, it’s a matter of coming up with the right idea, and clearing the decks to write. That’s my excuse anyway!
Has being a mum helped you creatively?
It has given me some ideas for stories. For example, my three Princess Mirror-Belle books, about a girl who comes out of the mirror, were influenced by my eldest son who had an imaginary friend he saw in the mirror. And The Giants and the Joneses, about a girl giant who collects children, was inspired by my second son, who was a great collector of anything and everything. I do run ideas by my children, usually when we’re walking about in the Scottish hills. My youngest son Jerry helped me dream up the plot of What the Ladybird Heard in which all the animals make the wrong noises to trick some crooks.
Your children are grown up now, but how did you find the time to write when they were young?
At that stage I was a songwriter, rather than a writer of books, and the work wasn’t very regular; when it came I managed to get it done when they were at playgroup or in bed.
You used to write jingles. What’s the silliest thing you’ve written a song about?
I once had to write a song about horrible smells for a children’s TV programme. I was told that the first verse had to be about smelly socks, the second verse about a smelly cheese and the third verse about a smelly cauliflower. For the chorus I just brainstormed in my notebook, writing down every word to do with smells I could think of: sniff, stink, pong, niffy, etc. Usually this leads to a rhyme or an idea. In this case I came up with ‘If you sniff for just a jiffy you’ll catch a whiff of something niffy’.
Which characters have you enjoyed creating the most – and why?
I enjoyed creating Stick Man, but probably my favourite character to write about is naughty Princess Mirror-Belle. Her outrageous utterances just seem to flow from my pen. I think I must have an outrageous, naughty side to my personality which I keep buried – most of the time, anyway.
You are partially deaf. Has that affected the way you work?
Actually, my hearing loss was very much exaggerated recently in a newspaper. When I told the journalist, ‘I don’t want to exaggerate the hardship’, this was reported as ‘I couldn’t possibly exaggerate the hardship’! But yes, it does slightly affect the way I work in schools. For instance, when the children ask questions I get them to come out and sit next to me on a special Question Chair so that I can hear better. Actually, this is quite a good dramatic device anyway, and the children really like it. I also sometimes find speeches at book awards etc difficult to hear, which is frustrating. But luckily I now have an excellent hearing aid. This year I was invited by the book chain Waterstones to write the text for a competition to find a new illustrator, and I chose to write about a deaf fairy who can’t hear the wishes properly. The book, Freddie and the Fairy, will come out in the autumn, with pictures by the very talented competition winner, Karen George.
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