Interview: Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo

Julia Donaldson reading to a young fan. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Julia Donaldson reading to a young fan. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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NOT MUCH has the power to make Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, angry. But the government’s plans to slash library services has her baring her teeth and staging a counter-attack, she tells Peter Ross.

Julia Donaldson doesn’t really do angry. The children’s laureate and author of The Gruffalo is far too mild and woodland creature-ish for that. But she is certainly annoyed and anxious about the present state and threatened future of Britain’s libraries in an age of austerity cuts, and is about to embark on a 35-date library tour, from Caithness to Cornwall, which will be both celebration and protest.

Julia Donaldson in Milngavie Library. Picture: Robert Perry

Julia Donaldson in Milngavie Library. Picture: Robert Perry

“I don’t want libraries to disappear,” she says when we meet in the Milngavie Bookshop, not far from her home in Bearsden. “Libraries are where children discover what books they like. If they can’t discover what books they like, then often reading’s just going to seem like a chore, and we’re not going to have readers in the next generation.”

Donaldson is 63, with an amiable, scatty manner. There is something childlike and old-fashioned about her, a whiff of tomboy; she claims to enjoy crosswords and sudoku, but the suspicion is that conkers and marbles are rather more her bag. She takes a pride in honing and polishing each line and rhyme in her hugely popular books, and it’s possible to hear this editing process at work in her conversation, which is full of words and phrases discarded halfway through. One can almost see the blue pencil shading the air as she talks.

Her library tour, which begins on Monday in Thurso, will see children from local schools dramatising a picture book story of their choice, after which she and they (and her husband, Malcolm, a musician, keen amateur actor and recently retired paediatrician) will act out one or two of Donaldson’s own books. She is the author of well over 100 titles, with total sales in the tens of millions. Some – notably The Gruffalo, but also the likes of Room On The Broom and Snail And The Whale – are among the defining and best loved children’s books of the age. She adores the idea that her words are so often read at bedtimes across Britain that she is part of that intimate nightly ritual.

Although Donaldson has lived in Scotland for many years, she is originally from the London district of Hampstead. She grew up in a large Victorian house, in a large bohemian family, and as a child was a keen user of her own local library, Keats Grove, borrowing Richmal Compton’s Just William stories and books by E Nesbit, author of The Railway Children. The librarian, a Miss Farndale, became an important figure in young Julia’s imaginative life, always able and willing to recommend another great story based on her understanding of the little girl’s developing taste. Recently, Donaldson reestablished contact with Miss Farndale, now in her eighties and an enthusiastic attendee of the Notting Hill Carnival, and the pair keep in touch by email.

Children's author Julia Donaldson in Milngavie Library. Picture: Robert Perry

Children's author Julia Donaldson in Milngavie Library. Picture: Robert Perry

It is this experience of libraries as magical places of discovery which Donaldson is keen the current and next generations of children should not be denied. But it is about more than just reading for pleasure. With declining literacy, she points out, will come a range of social and economic problems, including more crime: around three-quarters of the prisoners in Scotland’s jails are illiterate. Earlier this year she visited a library in east London, near to where rioting had taken place, and was pleased to see young people working under supervision at a homework club. “There’s more likely to be more riots if the children don’t have somewhere like that to go.”

According to Public Libraries News, a website which collates and analyses library cuts, 383 UK libraries are currently under threat or have been closed since April 2011. Some heavyweight writers, notably Zadie Smith and Philip Pullman, have spoken out against this particular manifestation of the public spending cuts. High-profile battles have been fought against library closures in London and Gloucestershire, the latter campaign supported by Donaldson, who says she has “huge respect and admiration” for protestors.

In Scotland, where there is a historic culture of public and political support for lending libraries (the first in the world opened in Edinburgh in 1726) the problem has so far been nowhere near as acute. Statistics show that library attendance is in fact rising, driven by the attractions of digital texts and online access. Donaldson, though, is sniffy about the ability of e-books to help children discover new literary pleasures. “If you have a Kindle,” she has said, “you don’t suddenly spot Treasure Island.”

She herself is a regular visitor to the library, using it as a work space when she wants to get away from the temptations of email and fridge. Who knows but the next Gruffalo might be written in the reference section of Bearsden library?

There is widespread anxiety about the future of Scottish libraries, as councils make tough decisions about how to implement budget cuts. Already there has been behind-the-scenes restructuring and reductions in staffing levels, resulting in librarians feeling spread thin and exhausted. According to Unison Scotland, over half of Glasgow’s professional librarian posts will be lost over the coming year and in Dumfries and Galloway the library materials budget has been cut by a quarter.

“We shouldn’t be complacent in Scotland,” says Donaldson. “For instance, I live in East Dunbartonshire where Kirkintilloch library had a lovely separate children’s section and with very little or no public consultation that has now been closed.”

Although she admits that she is not a natural lobbyist, Donaldson has had dealings with Westminster politicians on the 
libraries issue. She has met Ed Miliband and plans (without, it must be said, much enthusiasm) to meet the education secretary Michael Gove. Her meeting with the culture minister Ed Vaizey was not a positive experience. She took him to task for spinning the replacement of professional librarians with volunteers as vibrant 21st century thinking. “The only thing he promised me was that he would stop using the words ‘vibrant’ and ‘21st century’.”

As a mother, Donaldson would, in the past, use the library as a way of discovering new books for her children. Reading together, she says, is “a lovely opportunity to really discover your child. I remember the humour in Winnie the Pooh, our youngest son Jerry just got, and through that I realised what his sense of humour was. With Hamish, there was an Oscar Wilde story about the statue of a prince who can’t see, and he would cry at that, and I realised how tender-hearted he was.”

Hamish took his own life in 2003 at the age of 25. Has the business of her professional life since then been any kind of comfort? “I think you are fortunate if you have some area of your life that is busy and happy, that you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into something,” she says. “So you don’t feel, ‘Oh I’ve got these sadnesses and these awful things, so I can only put myself half-heartedly into work.’ Look at Mozart’s biography. He had a lovely chubby cherub of an infant who died. And I know lots of Mozart’s music is very sad, but lots of it is very happy as well.”

Donaldson’s two other sons, Jerry and Alastair, are now grown men with young families of their own. Her eldest grandchild, Poppy, is two years old and a devoted fan of her grandmother’s work. “She knows all my books off by heart and my songs. And she loves tragedy, so in the Snail And The Whale there’s a page where the whale is beached and that is her favourite picture. So sweet.”

Poppy, of course, need not visit the library to borrow her granny’s books. But Julia Donaldson is determined to do her bit to ensure other children, whether rich and poor, can read The Gruffalo and any other books they choose for free.

• Julia Donaldson’s tour begins on Monday at Thurso Library and visits seven other Scottish libraries before heading to the rest of the UK. For more information see www.childrenslaureate.org.uk