'I love phonics - but six is too young for a test' says new children's laureate

10th June 2011 at 01:00
Gruffalo creator speaks out against 'prescriptive' proposals

It is a law almost universally acknowledged that any newspaper article about Julia Donaldson must be accompanied by a picture of The Gruffalo, her most famous creation. But there is far more to her than the creature with a poisonous wart on the end of his nose.

After a night on the sleeper train from Glasgow and a day full of interviews, Mrs Donaldson is slightly rumpled but enthusiastic about her plans for her two-year tenure as Waterstone's Children's Laureate - a role she took over from illustrator Anthony Browne this week.

"It's very good for me to find out about what else is going on in the children's book world," she said. "I am interested in drama and music and I'm sure I'll find out about lots of charities and organisations who I could work alongside."

Mrs Donaldson is known primarily for her picture books, which include, of course, The Gruffalo, and Stick Man, Tiddler, Room on the Broom and The Snail and the Whale.

But her first love was songwriting and she continues to write not only songs, but also poems, plays and fiction for older children such as the Princess Mirror-Belle series.

Her first teenage novel, Running on the Cracks, won the 2009 Nasen Inclusive Children's Book Award. And she has written a 60-book phonics reading scheme, Songbirds.

"My phonics reading scheme is probably the thing I've written that I'm most proud of," she said. "I love phonics. The scheme is very varied - it has lots of illustrators, uses some rhyming texts, some prose texts, non-fiction, some realistic stories, some fantasy stories. I recognised, and I think most teachers recognise, that children vary widely from each other, have different tastes, are drawn into reading in different ways."

But Mrs Donaldson believes the planned introduction of phonics tests for six-year-olds, currently being trialled in around 300 schools in England, is a mistake.

"Phonics is important; it is important children have those building blocks, but when my husband was a child he didn't learn to read until he was six or seven," she said.

"If he'd had a reading test when he was six he would have failed it and jolly well felt a failure, because however much they say 'it's just a little test, children won't notice', children are very intelligent and sensitive, and very quick to feel a failure.

"Of course you want to check, but I think six is too young. It is too prescriptive and it is unnecessary to do it at such a young age."

Alongside other authors and illustrators, Mrs Donaldson is campaigning for the future of libraries, which are under threat from public spending cuts. "I seriously feel without libraries we are going to lose our adult readers of the future," she said.

Mrs Donaldson studied drama and French at Bristol University, where she met her future husband, Malcolm. They went busking around Europe, where she began writing songs. On their return to the UK, she sent a tape to the BBC and began writing songs for children's television around her day job in publishing.

But after the publishing house she worked at closed, Mrs Donaldson decided to train as a teacher and taught English at in an independent secondary in Brighton.

"I loved teaching," she said. "That is where I learnt how different children are. I was given the bottom set for English and had lovely girls. There was one who read Shakespeare like an angel, one who wrote poetry, one was very good at debating - and one who was very good at combing her hair."

Mrs Donaldson left teaching after having her own children, but carried on writing songs.

"I'm glad I can bring something to the laureateship. I'm hoping to seize the opportunity to expand my knowledge and to experience other areas," she said.


The laureates

- Quentin Blake, illustrator, 1999-2001

- Anne Fine, novelist, 2001-03

- Michael Morpurgo, novelist, 2003-05

- Jacqueline Wilson, novelist, 2005-07

- Michael Rosen, poet, 2007-09

- Anthony Browne, illustrator, 2009-11


Julia Donaldson

Born 1948; grew up in Hampstead, north London

Education and career

Studied drama and French at Bristol University.

Worked in publishing and as a teacher, while also performing street theatre and writing songs for children's television.

1993: One of her television songs, A squash and a squeeze, is published as a book.

1999: The Gruffalo is published.

2009: The Gruffalo is made into an Oscar-nominated film. Her novel for teenagers, Running on the Cracks, wins the Nasen Inclusive Children's Book Award.

2011: Appointed children's laureate in succession to Anthony Browne.

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