The Julia Donaldson roadshow: grit, a guitar and a Gruffalo
Live performance is an integral part of the work of the former children’s laureate, who tours with her stories and songs as part of an almost evangelical drive to spread a love of reading among children
Julia Donaldson. ‘Parents often tell me that they sing the books rather than read them aloud.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire is packed with pre-schoolers and primary school students, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their favourite author. A long table filled with props flanks the stage. There are hats and masks, pink paraphernalia, and copies of several illustrated books that are recognisable even from a distance.
A figure steps on to the stage. She has unkempt grey hair, an enormous smile and the energy of a teenager. This is Julia Donaldson, saviour and scourge of parents worldwide who have been forced to read books such as The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom so many times they know them by heart.
Donaldson is in Dublin to promote her latest books for children. The live performance is an integral part of the Donaldson industry, which extends beyond the 92 books she has written for commercial publication (she has also written more than 100 texts for schools). There are the book-related CDs, the film and stage adaptations, the puppets: children’s publishing is rich with merchandising opportunities.
Accompanied by her guitar-playing husband, Malcolm, Donaldson performs songs she has composed to accompany her stories, and involves the young audience in dramatising scenes from some of their favourites, including her latest, Princess Mirror-belle and the Dragon Pox and The Flying Bath.
It would be easy to be cynical were it not for Donaldson’s outspoken commitment to the cause of children’s literacy; much of this extraordinary proliferation of work comes from her educational affiliations and her tenure as children’s laureate 2011-2013. In fact, her favourite part of the job is interacting with her readers, particularly in schools.
“When you perform in a theatre,” she says, “it is usually children whose parents read with them who come. But in schools you can get children who don’t have many books at home involved in a story, and that can encourage them to seek books out elsewhere.”
Drama, she insists, is a vital tool for fostering a love of language and reading in those who might be book-shy, but it also helps to develop children’s confidence in general. “If you are acting out a small part in a short play, you are reading and decoding language,” she says. “But you are also learning to read with expression, and that is so good for developing a child’s sense of self. There is a tendency to expect children not to put themselves forward or speak out of turn or talk too loud, but public speaking is an important skill. Performing, and reading as part of that, can help them find their place in the world.”
It was from a love of performing that Donaldson developed her own love of reading (the outspoken hero of the Just William stories was a childhood favourite). Family life for the fledgling writer was full of amateur dramatics: her parents and sister would perform short plays that the young Julia would write, and the family would take regular “musical holidays, where my father would be playing the cello in these different quartets, and the kids would put up a show at the end of the week”.
She studied drama and French at the University of Bristol, where she met her future husband. Together they started busking, with Donaldson composing songs for performance. “They were silly songs really; songs for occasions,” she remembers. “But we started getting asked to do gigs at dentists’ dinners, so I would write a song about teeth. That sort of thing.”
Eventually she turned her hand to writing songs for children, because “that’s where the commercial opportunity was”. She sent a demo to the BBC, and found her songs in demand, but even so “it was very up-and-down work. It was a bit like being an actor. You could have loads of work one month and then nothing for a year.”
The nature of Donaldson’s break into the world of children’s publishing was a serendipitous experience. “One of the songs I wrote for the BBC was called A Squash and a Squeeze, and 15 years later I got a call from someone who worked in children’s publishing who had bought the BBC tape when her children were young, and she still had the song going around in her brain. She thought it might make a good book, so she got in touch and it was published.”
Donaldson seized the opportunity and began “sending these playlets I had written when I was teaching to educational publishers”. Almost 200 publications later, Donaldson seems indefatigable.
Songs remain at the heart of Donaldson’s picture books (she has written novels for older children too). Some of the stories have songs worked into the prose, but many songs are written when she is developing the audio version, “to give the story another dimension”. Even when a story has no song, however, the sing-song rhyme of her prose lends itself to music.
“Parents often tell me that they sing the books rather than read them aloud,” she says. “I think it would be great to get a CD full of the different tunes that parents make up.”
The seeming effortlessness of the rhymes is an illusion. The books take “weeks of agonising drafting and redrafting, trying to make the prose flow. You want it to trip off the tongue, and that takes a lot of effort.” She finds herself problem-solving issues of metre in the bath or while walking. Rhyme creates its own imperative in terms of plot as well: the whole direction of a book can change depending on a simple word choice.
The illustrations come later, and Donaldson has little to do with the process beyond approving the final proofs. However, she works with a select group of illustrators: Axel Scheffler, whose signature animals have brought dozens of her stories to life; Lydia Monks, identified by her sugary style; David Roberts, who has trolled and T-Rexed the most boisterous of her books; while the lighter pencil touches of Emily Gravett and Rebecca Cobb have animated some of the gentler tales.
Donaldson is passionate about praising their work, aware that she gets the credit as the author despite the fact that young readers first engage with the books through their vivid visual presence.
And yet any attention paid to children’s literature, she says, needs to be harnessed. Part of her passionate belief in the importance of a laureate for children’s literature, for example, comes from the way in which “it focuses attention on children’s books and children’s writers, when there is precious little given to it in the media otherwise, despite the fact that more than a third of all books sold are children’s books.
“It is a huge market, and most readers of newspapers are parents or grandparents. And people who have no children might also be interested in reading about books that are beautifully made, full of wonderful illustrations, and often dealing with serious issues.”
Indeed, children themselves might be interested to see their books on the pages. It is not just about selling more books; it is about creating readers of the future.
Princess Mirror-Belle and the Dragon Pox, Illustrated by Lydia Monks; and The Flying Bath, illustrated by David Roberts, are published by Macmillan. The Gruffalo: Live on Stage is at Glór, Ennis on Oct 31 and Nov 1; Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire on Nov 2 and 3; and Black Box, Galway, Nov 5 and 6