SHE is the nation’s bestselling children’s author with an MBE and a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. So why would Julia Donaldson put herself through a month of daily shows at the Fringe? Only for the fun of it
When I arrive at best-selling children’s author Julia Donaldson’s flat, she’s not in. After a few tries on the buzzer I get her husband Malcolm who thinks I’m the window cleaner, but quickly masks his disappointment. He lets me in and explains that Julia has nipped out to get them sandwiches. Just then the PR arrives. She’s not the window cleaner either, but Malcolm rallies and takes us up into the big, friendly flat, full of books and comfy furniture, with music scattered all over the piano. Then Julia arrives, all smiles and sandwiches and we move into the kitchen to talk. The buzzer goes again and Malcolm shoots off. That’ll be the window cleaner. He returns, saying, “It’s the photographer. I’ve just been showing him all the windows. He was about to call a psychiatrist.” From the get-go there’s an air of endearing anarchy about the Donaldsons.
Their multi-windowed Edinburgh flat is in an elegant Georgian crescent that clings to the cliff overlooking the Water of Leith, so we’re clearly not in a squash and a squeeze territory, but with all five of us in what is not a huge kitchen I can’t help but think of the book that made her a household name. No, not The Gruffalo, that came later. The one that started it all back in 1993. A Squash and a Squeeze, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, where a little old lady complains her house is too small.
“It was poky for one and it’s tiny for two, it’s tiny for two and it’s titchy for three, it’s titchy for three and it’s teeny for four, it’s weeny for five...”
If you recognise these lines you’ve obviously been on the bedtime reading circuit, and will be familiar with the cult that is Julia Donaldson. She’s the nation’s best-selling children’s author, teaming up with illustrators Axel Scheffler, Nick Sharratt and Lydia Monks, and as well as The Gruffalo, the tale of the tusky monster which has sold 13 million copies in 52 languages, including Zulu, Faroese, Breton and Scots, there’s Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo and the Gruffalo’s Child, The Snail and the Whale and Stick Man. If they don’t suit you, there are 180 more to choose from, 64 of them widely available in bookshops. The remaining 120 are intended for school use and include her Songbirds phonic reading scheme, which is part of the Oxford Reading Tree.
Does she feel as if The Gruffalo overshadows her other work?
“The worst thing is when papers say the Gruffalo author is sick of the Gruffalo. The papers want to talk about The Gruffalo and I don’t mind that, but one day I would love to do an interview about one of the others because what people buy is very well distributed across my books. But I did vow very early on that I wouldn’t get bitter, because I remember saying back at the millennium that I’d love my recently written book, The Gruffalo, to become a classic. I was just joking. I didn’t think that could ever happen. So I have to look back and say I’m very, very happy.
“We don’t always have the Gruffalo in our shows, but obviously it’s a big thing. And the audience know it by heart. One time I lost my voice but it didn’t matter because they just said it for me.”
Donaldson has an MBE, a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery (“I was pleased I wasn’t horrified with it. Lucian Freud had just died so they couldn’t get him to do it”) and from 2011-13 she was Children’s Laureate, promoting libraries and writing plays to help children read.
She began her career writing songs before books and Malcolm, a semi-retired paediatrician, is literally her partner in rhyme. As part of the performing troupe that act out the books in their shows and as a guitar-playing fellow busker, he’s been alongside Donaldson from the very start.
Last year she was the UK’s number one bestselling writer across all books, for children and adults. That’s more than 50 Shades, more than Harry Potter, and she became the first author to record UK sales of more than £10m for five consecutive years.
Basically, Donaldson’s minted but it’s like no-one’s told her and she’s carrying on as normal, apart from the flat she and Malcolm bought in Edinburgh in 2006 when they did a show at the Fringe, and also so they could visit one of her sons and her grandchildren in Dundee. (They have another home in Sussex, closer to her other son and his family.) Admittedly it’s in one of Edinburgh’s most expensive crescents, but inside it’s homely, welcoming, normal.
Born in 1948, Donaldson grew up in a busy house in Hampstead, where she and her sister and parents lived on the ground floor, her aunt and uncle on the first and her grandmother on the top, until she was 12. There was music and stories, fairy tales, Greek myths, retellings of Chaucer, Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes and TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s book of Practical Cats.
Donaldson was perhaps always bound for a songwriting career with a degree in French and drama from Bristol University, coupled with a love of busking. Medical student Malcolm and his guitar joined her, and they travelled throughout Europe and the US, singing the songs they wrote as they went. This led to freelance songwriting for children’s TV shows, Play Away, Play School and Play Board, and plays to help reading skills when she worked in schools. The family moved to Glasgow and raised three children, Hamish, Alastair and Jerry, while Malcolm worked as a paediatrician and Julia wrote books and songs.
With her bobbed, straight brown hair, the 66-year old author is like her verse: jaunty and easy-going. She has a soft, throaty-laughed voice with sentences that trail into ellipses as if she’s just thought of something else. No matter as Malcolm is there to finish them, and cue her up. “Do a bit of the Gruffalo in Scots,” he’ll say and off they go.
“A moose took a dauner through the deep, mirk widd, A tod saw the moose and the moose looked guid,” she says, her voice now loud and clear, then Malcolm comes in with “Whaur are ye aff to wee broon moose” and so on, word perfect until they start to laugh several pages in.
“We’re doing an event with James Robertson, who did the translating, at the book festival,” says Julia. I’ve also done a book called What The Jackdaw Saw, which I wrote with some deaf children, and it’s all about signing, so we’ll act that out too.”
Julia and Malcolm have a busy August ahead of them and their excitement is palpable. As well as Edinburgh International Book Festival appearances they have a daily interactive show on the Fringe, after which she meets her audience to sign books.
The Fringe show is a first in terms of scale for the Donaldsons, and they’re giddy at the prospect. “We have to sell 400 tickets 25 times, so it’s quite a big thing. It’s different to anything we’ve ever done before,” she says.
For the first time ever they have a director, there’s a proper set, a soundtrack and two professional actors, Huntington & Hutt (comedians who have another show on the Fringe and about whom Donaldson raves), as well as Malcolm and Julia’s sister, Mary.
“This is so much more professional than anything we’ve previously done,” says Malcolm, who is back in the kitchen after the arrival of the window cleaner. “I was worried we might lose the Julia-ness, but we haven’t. Maybe we’ll find it difficult being organised,” he suggests to his wife.
“I think it’ll be nice to have a director,” says Julia. “There was one show where we were doing What the Ladybird Heard and I always say ‘has anyone got a dad who’s good at acting? This child said ‘my dad is’, so this guy was the farmer and at the end I said, ‘her dad was good at acting, give him a clap’ and then after the show realised it was Rory Bremner. Anyway, he said I think you could benefit from a spot of direction. To be fair, I had just got my prop boxes and would have been saying ‘so, here we’ve got the hats… oh, maybe it’s in another box’.”
As for which shows cause the most riotous behaviour, Julia says, “Well, Malcolm always says unless someone cries when the Gruffalo comes on, you’ve failed.”
“We’ll get a free pass for Underbelly and our show’s over early, so we can go out every night,” she says. “Last time we saw over 30 shows.”
There will be one night when they can’t go out culture vulturing, however, and that’s when the couple take the stage at the Spiegeltent as part of the book festival’s Jura Unbound series (of unexpected words and music events), to sing their “grown up” songs about spaghetti, burglary and parenthood. This will take them full circle back to their days as student buskers in Bristol. Donaldson’s songwriting work for TV work was beginning to dry up thanks to the digital dawn, when the Squash and a Squeeze song became her first picture book. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler it was published when she was 44.
“We’re going right back to when we were in our twenties, early thirties when we did a lot of singing in folk clubs,” says Julia. “They’re hopefully witty, funny songs. We’re doing a mixture of autobiographical, so the busking songs, then the books, so a Squash and a Squeeze. We usually get adults to be the hen and the cow. Try stopping them! And they’re usually much better at it than the children,” she says.
DONALDSON has become known for her rhyming style and her verse bounces along, Dr Seuss (but making more sense) meets Edward Lear.
“I don’t write in rhyme just for the sake of it, and many of my books aren’t in rhyme, but I suppose that’s what I’ve come to be known for and I do enjoy it. The stories come from an idea or a picture that strikes a flint. Sometimes things lie dormant for years.”
Donaldson’s tales are peopled by animals, children, mermaids, scarecrows – Malcolm says she gets her ideas in the bath or out walking – and are light-hearted in delivery but often deal with serious issues like courage (the Gruffalo), altruism, empathy, trust, betrayal, being different. She’s into inclusion – there’s hearing impairment in Freddie and the Fairy and What The Jackdaw Saw with Nick Sharratt – and identity, with Stick Man. In Tabby McTat, there’s loss and reunion.
“The Paper Dolls is the one that really gets the adults going, makes them cry,” says Julia. “It’s really about loss, bereavement and memory. It’s about some paper dolls who are joined and have lots of adventures, but are snipped apart. They float into a little girl’s memory and are joined up again there. Luckily children don’t get upset like adults do.”
“I think Paper Dolls is Julia’s best ever book and it works on all these different levels,” says Malcolm.
“People have said if there’s a bereavement in the family, even the cat, or you’ve lost your teddy bear, and you’ve got this book where the dolls are snipped up but live on in the memory, that’s a way for adults to say it’s like the paper dolls, your cat has died but remember all the lovely times and in a way he’s living in your mind.
“There were two things that inspired it, my battered guitar that was cracked and Julia’s very special doll who looked like something out of a horror movie, because one of her arms and an eye were missing. We agreed to let them go and have good memories...”
And then he comes round to the thing that was in my mind but I was still framing a question so as to not sound crass: the death of their son Hamish, who had episodes of psychosis from the age of 14 and killed himself at 25.
“And then I suppose, losing a son and everything that was…” he trails off. “Then Julia saw a picture of a family on front of a medical journal, all holding hands in paper doll mode and that was it.”
When I ask Julia about Hamish, whether his death impacted on her writing, she says: “I don’t want to particularly talk about it.”
Then she does, obliquely.
“Some of the characters in Running on the Cracks [her novel for teens and the book she’s most proud of] are based on people in a psychiatric hospital I got to know. So I don’t think you write about these things consciously but sometimes things that happen in your life can reflect in your writing, completely subconsciously. I had three books in a row, it wasn’t straight after him, but Stick Man, Tiddler and Tabby McTat were three books that were all about characters getting separated or lost and found again and that’s perhaps an unconscious way of using it. The next three, Zog, The Highway Rat and The Scarecrows’ Wedding are much more frivolous again.
“But I think people tend to over-assume that books stem from your life. If you look at most books or films, for adults and children, they’re about exploring what happens when a character is removed from somewhere where they’re pretty safe. Only with picture books it’s more fable-like.”
With the interview over and the windows sparkling, it’s time for the ever-so-amenable Donaldsons to shove out the snapper, push out the PR, heave out the hack. I’d like to have been able to report there was a cow on the table tapping out a jig, but there wasn’t. I suspect there wasn’t a goat in the bedroom either, but I didn’t get a chance to check. You’d have to ask the window cleaner.