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Q & A with The Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson

Incredibly Julia Donaldson’s and Axel Scheffler’s bestselling picture book The Gruffalo was first published, 20 years ago! Muddy talks books, performing and buying a post-office with the best-selling writer.

Originally published in 1999, The Gruffalo remains one of Britain’s best-loved bedtime stories to this day, an amazing 20 years later. To celebrate the anniversary Tall Stories’ acclaimed stage adaptation comes to Leicester’s Curve this month 19-24 Nov

Julia, who lives near Steyning, West Sussex, has written more than 200 books and was Children’s Laureate 2011 – 2013.

Muddy Sussex caught up with her while she was on the road performing in another stage show, The Guffalo, The Witch and The Warthog, along with her husband and sister.

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.

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? 

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

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.

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!

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. 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. 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!

Tall Stories presents The Gruffalo at Curve 19-24 Nov.

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