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.
Your books are loved universally. How does that feel? Do you still have ‘pinch me’ moments?
It does feel wonderful, and yes, I do have those ‘pinch me’ moments sometimes – though I have to own up that nothing has been so good as the excitement when I got an offer for The Gruffalo. I danced around for days on end. My first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, was a bit gradual: first I was told that a publisher was interested in using the words of my song ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ as a picture-book text (that was a ‘dancing about’ moment), but then it took ages to find an illustrator, draft and redraft the contract, etc. There were periods when it all went quiet and I thought, ‘Nothing’s going to happen after all’. But it was amazing when I finally did have the book in my hand – plus various foreign editions – and that was then a passport to visiting schools, which became quite a big part of my life.
Axel Scheffler has illustrated the vast majority of your best-selling picture books. What’s it like when you first see your new stories in picture form?
When it’s Axel, I always have lots of lovely laughs, as he is so witty and adds so many funny details. I’ve just seen his pictures for our next book, Zog, about a dragon, and they totally banished my blues. The story is set in a school for dragons and he has given each dragon pupil its own character (naughty, inattentive, keen, etc), which I think will add so much to the bedtime storytelling.
Many of your books are written for schools, so the concept of learning to read must be very close to your heart.
I have quite a clear memory of teaching my own sister to read, through the c-a-t spells cat method, so when I was asked to write a whole phonic reading scheme I was delighted. There are now 60 of these ‘Songbirds’ phonic reading books and I really enjoyed working on something progressive like that, and trying to ensure that the stories were varied and fun as well as teaching the relevant sounds and spelling patterns. Of course I think it’s important that schools use bookshop books too, not just reading schemes, but a lot of children do need to learn to assemble the building blocks systematically before they can take off.
What’s your goal for the coming year – and what can your fans look forward to?
As well as Zog and Freddie and the Fairy, I’ve got a book called Cave Baby coming out which is illustrated by the wonderful Emily Gravett. I’ve also written four other picture book texts which haven’t yet been illustrated. It’s going to be a year of travel for me, with book trips to Paris, Luxembourg, Germany and Vienna. And I’m expecting to become a grandmother for the first time this summer! So I’m not sure how much writing I’ll fit in.
Running on the Cracks
This edgy thriller about teenage runaways takes a fresh look at family relationships and growing up.
The Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson has made a complete U-turn in her latest literary offering, giving teenagers a taste of her writing talents with her first full-length novel. The tale of Leo, a half-Chinese, half-English orphan on the run from her sinister and abusive uncle is a huge leap for Donaldson – but the result is, overall, pleasing. Leo is on a journey to find her Chinese grandparents when she meets Finlay, a goth outcast who recognises her from a newspaper article about her disappearance. He joins in her search, but with Leo both the hunter and hunted, the story takes on bizarre twists and turns.
The novel tackles grim subjects such as abuse, death and survival, but the light style of writing and plenty of humorous moments ensure the tale never gets too bleak or heavy. Donaldson writes from several perspectives, including Leo’s, Finlay’s and Uncle John’s, which keeps the story fresh and the pace compelling. Filled to the brim with unconventional characters, some are a bit too off-the-wall to be believable or sympathetic, showing Donaldson perhaps isn’t quite ready to relinquish her nonsense hat. This, and a lack of depth and exploration into the characters and plot, may put off older teens, but the simplicity of writing lends itself to tweens and young teens who will be hooked by the funny dialogue and unique spectrum of characters. Running on the Cracks is a must-read for any young teens looking for a dark, adventurous, quirky read.
Reviewed by Poppy Pedder.