Gruf­falo cre­ator Ju­lia Don­ald­son tells us about her fly­ing bath.

Gruf­falo cre­ator Ju­lia Don­ald­son tells Kate Whit­ing there is in­spi­ra­tion ev­ery­where, even in the bath

Friday - - Contents -

On a sunny day, Bri­tain’s best­selling au­thor, Ju­lia Don­ald­son, is de­servedly re­lax­ing in her new gar­den. She and her hus­band of al­most 42 years, Mal­colm, have just moved from their fam­ily home near Glas­gow, Scot­land, to a small Sus­sex town in Eng­land and their new house, she re­veals ex­cit­edly, has three baths. She’s not show­ing off her wealth, how­ever – the baths rep­re­sent po­ten­tial hours of in­spi­ra­tion.

“You have to put in time at your desk, of course, but so many of my ideas have gelled when I’ve been in the bath,” she ex­plains. “In the new house, there are three baths, so I can get dif­fer­ent ideas in each one!”

Years ago, it was another bath – one with clawed feet be­long­ing to a friend – that gave the 65-year-old grand­mother

the idea for one of her lat­est chil­dren’s books, The Fly­ing Bath.

“The idea lay dor­mant for about eight years be­cause I couldn’t think what would hap­pen, and then some­how I hit on the idea [that] the bath [could go] around sup­ply­ing wa­ter, a bit like a fire en­gine, to an­i­mals, like the thirsty kan­ga­roo and the ba­boon, whose tree’s on fire.”

It’s in­cred­i­ble to think that some­one so creative and pro­lific – Don­ald­son has writ­ten 160 ti­tles and sells more books than JK Rowling – had her first chil­dren’s book pub­lished only when she was 44.

Be­fore then, she’d writ­ten songs for chil­dren’s TV shows and, as luck would have it, just as the work started to dry up in the early Nineties, a pub­lisher got in touch to ask whether her song, A Squash And A Squeeze, could be turned into a pic­ture book. The il­lus­tra­tor was Axel Sch­ef­fler, who col­lab­o­rated with her again six years later on what has be­come her best­known work, The Gruf­falo. (She and Sch­ef­fler have just worked to­gether again on The Scare­crow’s Wed­ding.) Don­ald­son had no idea how pop­u­lar

The Gruf­falo would be­come. “At the time, there weren’t very many ad­ven­ture-type pic­ture books. There were quite a lot of moral­is­ing books, or to help a shy child smile and then she’ll make friends, which can be done well, but they can some­times be a bit soppy. “I thought peo­ple will think The

Gruf­falo is a bit weird. But maybe I just struck it lucky and it was time for a change of di­rec­tion, be­cause now there are loads of rhyming books about mon­sters.”

And nowa­days, you can barely walk down a high street in the UK with­out see­ing the lat­est Gruf­falo mer­chan­dise on dis­play.

“I get sent a box ev­ery few weeks,” admits Don­ald­son, “so it means I can give it away, ei­ther to my grand­chil­dren or if a nice plum­ber comes round and they say they’ve got my books, I give their lit­tle girl some­thing, so it’s quite good fun. It’s mostly very well done, it’s very true to Axel’s art­work.”

As chil­dren’s lau­re­ate from 2011 to 2013, Don­ald­son backed li­braries and en­cour­aged chil­dren to read aloud, but she doesn’t feel com­pelled to moralise in her tales.

“I’m just try­ing to tell a story. Ob­vi­ously it’s not the world as it is be­cause you get talk­ing an­i­mals, but I’m cer­tainly not try­ing to teach chil­dren to share or any­thing like that.”

And she’s a firm be­liever that it doesn’t mat­ter what chil­dren read, so long as they do read.

“I re­mem­ber when The Beano

‘Maybe I just struck it lucky with The Gruf­falo be­cause it was a time for a change in di­rec­tion’

would pop through the let­ter box and my son would seize it and read it. I cer­tainly didn’t look down my nose at a comic, as op­posed to a book.”

Don­ald­son had three sons with her re­tired pae­di­a­tri­cian hus­band Mal­colm, who she met at univer­sity in Bris­tol.

Her el­dest, Hamish, took his own life in 2003, aged 25. He’d suf­fered se­vere psy­chotic episodes grow­ing up and was di­ag­nosed with schizoaf­fec­tive dis­or­der. Don­ald­son de­scribes him as a “lovely, lovely boy” that “no one could cope with from the word go”. She de­vel­oped the abil­ity to “com­part­men­talise” and, in 2009, wrote a book for older chil­dren,

Run­ning On The Cracks, deal­ing with men­tal ill­ness.

Her younger sons Alas­tair and Jerry are both mar­ried and have given her four grand­chil­dren (with another on the way), who she now de­lights in read­ing her books to.

“It’s funny, I’m so used to read­ing my sto­ries to big au­di­ences, it’s strange to be read­ing them one-to-one like I used to with my own chil­dren.

“Poppy, in par­tic­u­lar – she’s the four-year-old – gets very hooked, not just on my sto­ries, but she ab­so­lutely loves books, es­pe­cially if there’s some dis­as­ter com­ing.”

While no one caught fire, Don­ald­son’s own wed­ding was an un­usual af­fair, as she turned the whole day into an op­eretta with songs about the brides­maids, the best man and

‘I have had a sur­pris­ing num­ber of let­ters from par­ents whose chil­dren have died or are dy­ing’

even a pro­posal song. It was a nod to the early days of her courtship with Mal­colm, when the pair would busk around Italy and France to pay for their hol­i­days. “We’d do a bit of sight­see­ing, then lounge about in the af­ter­noon prac­tis­ing these songs, and then we’d de­scend on the town in the evening and busk and make enough money for the next day. I wrote a French busk­ing song and an Ital­ian one about spaghetti.” She ex­plains the longevity of their mar­riage as sim­ply “choos­ing the right person” in the first place.

“I’ve had friends who are ter­ri­bly sen­si­ble in al­most ev­ery way, much more than me, when they’re buy­ing a [vac­uum cleaner] or fridge-freezer or some­thing; all the things I don’t do.

“But those peo­ple tend to be a bit wild and im­pul­sive when it comes to a re­ally big de­ci­sion, like who you’re go­ing to marry. So I think I was just very care­ful. I knew Mal­colm be­fore we started go­ing out, so there wasn’t that hor­ri­ble feel­ing of, ‘Whoops, I might fall off my pedestal’.”

Mal­colm now ac­com­pa­nies Don­ald­son around the world on tours of con­certs, where they sing and act out her books.

She also has her hands full with her lat­est books, pre­par­ing for two sold-out per­for­mances at the Edinburgh Fes­ti­val and an­swer­ing her fan mail, which takes a day a week and can be hum­bling.

“I’ve had a sur­pris­ing num­ber of let­ters from par­ents whose chil­dren have ei­ther died or are dy­ing, or from an older child who loves my books,” she says. “So I might re­ply to the sur­viv­ing child.

“There was a re­ally sad one from a girl with leukaemia, who did a won­der­ful record­ing of her­self read­ing and I made a video to send back to her say­ing how great it was. Some­times I’m just in tears when I’m read­ing my mail.

“And some­times the chil­dren are much more in­ter­ested in them­selves. They might write, ‘Dear Ju­lia, my name is Emily, I have hazel eyes, and mid­brown hair in a pony tail, and I have four guinea pigs and I get to ride my friend’s horse some­times’. One wrote, ‘Dear Ju­lia, I’m rub­bish at hand­stands be­cause I al­ways fall over’ – that’s how the let­ter started.”

And with that, Don­ald­son’s off to en­joy the evening summer sun­shine in her new gar­den.

Don­ald­son with hus­band Mal­colm af­ter she re­ceived an MBE from the Queen for ser­vices to lit­er­a­ture

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