Interview: The Gruffalo Author Julia Donaldson

Starting out as a children's songwriter for the BBC in the 1970s, Julia Donaldson, MBE, has since become one of Britain's most popular and prolific children's author.

40p in every £1 spent on picture books in the UK goes on a title written by Julia Donaldson.

Her most famous book, The Gruffalo, has sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide. Other works in her stuffed back catalogue include Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale, The Giants and the Joneses.

Parentdish talked to Julia ahead of the upcoming tour of the stage adaptation of her 2009 book, What the Ladybird Heard.

A stage adaptation of What the Ladybird Heard is about to go on tour. As a performer yourself, how involved did you get in the production?

The main thing is to be happy with the company, make sure they're not dumbing down. Not "now children, let's all sing a nice song!" Not that many are like that these days.

And then after that, I have maybe two or three meetings with them about it. But I didn't go to any rehearsals, and I wasn't breathing down their necks - that would have been really irritating!

How have you managed to write so many books?

About 60 of them are phonics books, so they're very short and quicker to write. And then there's another series I'm very proud of called Plays to Read - very short plays for children.


​I think that's the very, very best way to learn to read - reading plays out loud and swapping parts.


So it sounds like more than it is, in a way.

You've got two more books that have just been published. Could you tell us a bit about them?

One of them, The Flying Bath, I'd really like to get a bit of attention, because there's been a lot of attention for the other one, The Scarecrows' Wedding, and I'm equally pleased with both of them.

It's inspired by a friend's bath, and it's all about bath toys. They take SOS calls through the shower attachment of the bath for animals that need water, so you've got a kangaroo that's very thirsty, a pig that's dirty. Unknown to the family - in the best storybook tradition - the bath flies out all over the world during the daytime.

It's kind of educational, telling children about the use of water, and it's all written in rhyming speech bubbles.

Did you always intend to be a writer? You started out as a songwriter...

I am still a songwriter, and I've got three books of songs out. It's strange the way it happened... I had already written some plays for schools, and I had the intention of sending them to a publisher but it was never top of my list.

Then when A Squash and a Squeeze was published, it really gave me the courage to do that, and that's what really got me going.

I think I could well be doing nothing, as songwriting was drying up because the BBC wasn't commissioning songwriters any more. So I could just have been a really frustrated person!

Were you a voracious reader growing up?

Yes, I was. I grew up in Hampstead which had lots of second-hand bookshops. I had a friend I used to go browsing with, reading all the William books, and the old E Nesbitt books.

I went to the library about once a week, or once a fortnight. In fact, not that long ago, I got back in touch with my old librarian. She'd read an interview where I'd mentioned her and got in touch with the paper. I probably thought she was ancient!

Do you get a lot of fan mail? Does anything stand out in particular?

Oh yes, lots! Some of it is very funny. "I can't do a handstand because I always fall over," that sort of thing. And then there are some that are very sad - a child who's died, and they've read something by me at the funeral. So it really runs the gamut.

There were rumours of a Warner Bros adaptation of the Giants and the Joneses. Is that still happening?

No, that's not happening any more. And I can't say I mind much. The adaptation has got to be right. I've been very happy with the others, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo's Child and Room on the Broom.

Speaking of the Gruffalo, it's probably your most famous book. Do you think there's something about it that particularly captures people?

I couldn't say, you'd have to ask the readers. Perhaps it's because at the time, there weren't many children's books like that, although now you get quite a lot written in rhyme. So maybe there was a bit of luck there...

What the Ladybird Heard will be touring through the summer, at theatres across the UK including London, Aylesbury, Swansea, Hull and Swindon.