Julia Donaldson

19th August 2011 at 01:00
Writer of much-loved children's books such as The Gruffalo and Charlie Cook's Favourite Book, Julia Donaldson is now Children's Laureate and guest selector at this month's Edinburgh book festival. She says getting children along to libraries is the best way to encourage them to read. Photography by Chris Watt

As Children's Laureate, what kind of events would you like to do with schools and libraries?

I want to concentrate on dramatising stories and music and doing performances. Part of it is about drawing attention to libraries, and I'd like to do it in a celebratory way. There's a big tour being planned where the librarian will invite a class in and I hope the children will come with an item prepared, ready to dramatise a book or poem. Schools bringing classes to libraries is something that does happen, but could happen more. Any connection between schools and libraries is a good thing.

Research shows that children are highly receptive to rhyme and rhythm from a very early age. Do you think that's one of the reasons children are drawn to your books?

I have a granddaughter now. She jiggles about when she's being read to, even if she can't understand the language. She dances and shakes her head - so you can see the response to the books. When I was writer in residence at Easterhouse, I worked in schools and very often the children just wanted to write a rhyme. One of the things we did was explore simple rhythms in things like Mary Had a Little Lamb, then I'd get them to write a different version, sticking to the rhythm, and that worked very well.

How long does writing a picture book take and how does the collaboration with the illustrator work?

With The Rhyming Rabbit, years ago I had an idea about one character talking in rhyme, but it was shelved. Also I wanted to do an underground story - I'm fascinated by Persephone. So eventually these two flints struck a spark. My new book, The Highway Rat, comes from the poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. The trick in it is an echo, which I thought was going to be murderously difficult but actually it's worked out well. It might take me a few weeks to write and the illustrator might take four months or so. They'd tend to be sent the text and work around it. But it's a different process for different books, it's not clear-cut. The page- turns in the books are so important - you need a mini-cliffhanger. I've never had experience of working directly with an illustrator. I think the illustrator could find that a bit annoying.

What are your views on e-books for children?

Their pros are that you can control the print size and you can get out-of- print books and good storage, but printed books might well suffer as a result. Bookshops are finding life so difficult anyway, because in practice most people are going to buy books online from home. Most children I know much prefer turning pages and enjoying whole chapters. Also, if you have books around, they look tempting on the shelves and a child is much more likely to pick them up. If you have a Kindle, you don't suddenly spot Treasure Island.

What does the guest selector role for the book festival involve?

The children's programme director, Janet Smyth, gave me a free hand to think up five or so events, slotting myself in at various points. I decided to do one concentrating on quirks of the teenage mind. Another one will bring some of my illustrators together. I always love to see other children's authors, because it can be quite a lonely experience.

What is it about The Gruffalo that has made such a strong connection with children?

I think it's made a particularly strong connection with journalists! During signings, children or parents often say Charlie Cook's Favourite Book or another story is the one they like best. I think The Gruffalo's popularity is because it's about a monster.

Did you have good experiences at primary and secondary school?

Both in primary and secondary I felt that the teachers were such characters and they were allowed a free rein to an extent. We had one primary school teacher who loved heraldry and italicised writing, so we learnt about that through his passion. At secondary school, when we studied The Tempest and Othello, our teacher really wanted to educate us - she didn't want to just make it about the requirements of the exam and she wasn't sticking rigidly to the syllabus. Now there are so many boxes for teachers to tick.

What's your favourite book or adult writer?

The most perfect book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. If I'm going on holiday, I'll take a Ruth Rendell; she's so good at creating characters.

Who is your favourite children's author?

I like the American author Arnold Lobel, who wrote fable-like stories about a frog and a toad. He had such a generous imagination.

What can be done by parents and schools to encourage more children to read?

In schools doing terribly simple plays, rather than just reading a book aloud, can help. Taking children to the library is just brilliant. If children can take out 10 books, some will be useless but some they'll latch onto, and it extends their repertoire. It's the best way of doing it, especially if there's a good librarian who can help them choose.

Julia Donaldson is guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs until 29 August.


Born: London, 1948

Education: Camden School for Girls; Bristol University; Falmouth College of Education

Career: Jobs in publishing and local radio; secondary English teacher; songwriter and performer in folk clubs; writer of children's books and plays. Appointed as Children's Laureate, 2011.

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