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Q&A with Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson

The Sussex resident, starring in a show for half term, talks books, performing, fave local attractions and buying a post office

Julia Donaldson, who lives near Steyning, West Sussex, has written over 200 books and was Children’s Laureate 2011 – 2013. She’s best known as the bestselling author of The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, which feature, along with four other stories, in the stage show The Gruffalo, The Witch and The Warthog.

It’s coming up at Horsham in half term week and she’ll be performing along with her husband and sister. We asked her more about the show, writing and Sussex.

Photo by Steve Ullathorne

How did the show come about?

I’d often done shows at book festivals and theatres, in which – with the help of my husband and sometimes others – I’d acted out four stories and sung four songs over the course of an hour. Gradually we’d been getting more and more ambitious in terms of props, PowerPoint etc, till we got to the stage where we wanted to have a director and a proper set, to take it up a notch. We performed The Gruffalo, the Witch and the Warthog at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and this year are taking it on the road now and then.

Is it is a mash-up of all the stories or are they seperate?

The initial song is The World Inside a Book and the background to the stage is like a bookshelf, so there’s a linking theme, but otherwise the stories and songs are independent and separate. It’s a lovely way of mixing up the children’s favourites with some stories they may not know about. One of these is The Magic Paintbrush, about a girl who is given a paintbrush that makes things real. Then there’s The Cook and the King, which is a really silly, funny story.

The old favourites include Room on the Broom and the Superworm song, for which we get some children on stage. I suppose we’re a bit like rock stars who mix up their greatest hits with songs from their latest album!

The Ugly Five. Photo by Steve Ullathorne

Who do you play? 

I’m the mouse in The Gruffalo, a wildebeest in The Ugly Five and the witch in Room on the Broom

You actually have quite a background in performing, don’t you? 

I did drama at University and I always wanted to act and that really led to me busking and performing in folk clubs before I started writing my own songs [Julia once penned songs for the BBC, including 70s/80s favourite Play Away], then the songs led to my books when one [A Squash and a Squeeze] was made into a book. I also used to be in Bristol Street Theatre after I graduated.

Is it true you once shared a stage with Judi Dench? 

Yes, when I was about 12 I was an understudy for Titania’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Old Vic. Luckily fairies do get sick from time to time so I did get to go on. Judi Dench was Titania and Tom Courtney was Puck. they weren’t so well known then though.

Julia as the mouse in The Gruffalo. Photo by Steve Ullathorne

Did you have any inkling The Gruffalo would be so successful?

I never imagined when I wrote the story all those years ago that the Gruffalo would become a household name, that the animation would be Oscar-nominated, or that people would be able to buy Gruffalo cups and boots and bubble bath.

When I bump into the Gruffalo everywhere I go, I feel a bit like the little mouse in the story who created an imaginary monster and ended up meeting him! I am proud of the story, but no more than I am of my other books: they are all like my children.

What do children most often ask you about your stories?

Children are so funny – they say things like “why are you wearing such funny shoes” when I go to visit schools.

My nephew was a huge fan of The Gruffalo. Here are three questions from him:

How tall is the Gruffalo?

Well Axel (illustrator Axel Scheffler) and I differ on this but Axel says he is taller than quite a tall man, so that would be very tall to a mouse.

Does the Gruffalo have a name, like Bob?

No, he is just The Gruffalo – or in fact a Gruffalo the same as the fox is a fox and the mouse is a mouse but if children want to give them names themselves that is fine.

Will there be a third Gruffalo book?

Probably not, unless I get a brilliant idea. It’s actually harder to write a sequel!

Photo by Steve Ullathorne

Any tips for children who enjoy writing themselves? 

If you write a story give the main character a problem, then make it get worse before it gets better.

Tips on making things rhyme? 

It’s not so much about the rhyme as the rhythm and the scan – you need to make sure the length of the lines are the same. Think of about five different ways of saying something as you might get a more appropriate rhyme that way, rather than just making something rhyme for the sake of it.

I have a sheet of rhyme endings when I’ve done stuff with children in schools: you go through the alphabet, putting b, c, ch, cl, cr, d etc in front of a sound to see if it makes a proper word.

The Cook and the King Photo by Steve Ullathorne

What are your latest books?

One is The Go-Away Bird, inspired by safari in South Africa, illustrated by Catherine Rayner, the other, with Axel Scheffler, is The Smeds and the Smoos, about aliens. You can get signed copies of these and my other books from Steyning Bookshop. I go in there every few weeks to sign books.

There are also Gruffalo stamps coming out (to mark the 20th anniversary) and it’s nice timing because my husband and I are actually buying our local post office at Steyning to save it from closure and having a big launch this Saturday (Oct 26)!

Vanessa and Jed who are going to run it, who also own holiday cottages locally, are friends of ours. I’m not going to be serving behind the counter but at the moment, because of the Gruffalo stamps, the windows are full of Gruffalo creatures!

What are your favourite places in Sussex?

A really nice place for everyone is Cissbury Ring. It’s just a little bit of a walk then lovely views. We like fungus hunting there, edible and otherwise. When the grandchildren come we sometimes take them to Fishers Farm Park. Also I really like, quite near to us, the beach at Shoreham. I love how it’s pebbly but you get these fleshy, salty plants.

Beach at Shoreham

I love the Downs. I’m planning to, probably next year, walk the South Downs Way. I’ve done it in sections up to now. I’ll probably do one of those things where you get people to take the luggage on for you.

 

The Gruffalo, The Witch and The Warthog with Julia Donaldson is at The Capitol, Horsham, Mon 28 & Tues 29 Oct. It’s recommended for ages 4 -10, tickets are £15 and there are two performances each day. thecapitolhorsham.com

It’s also at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, Thurs 31 Oct – Sat 2 Nov. theatreroyalwinchester.co.uk

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