Interview with Julia Donaldson
If you were to sail away in a pea-green boat to the land where the bong tree grows with the purpose of getting some work done, what would you take with you . . .?
Remember this is a picture book boat so it can hold whatever you want.
Well, then in that case a piano! And a nice big bath. A poetry anthology with a poem for each day of the year. And since you’re generously allowing me to take living beings (I wasn’t allowed a cat when I was on Desert Island Discs) I’ll take my husband, Malcolm – plus his guitar.
Poetry and music are obviously hugely important to your work. Could you tell me a little about song-writing and the part it played in your evolution as a writer of picture books?
Songs are the most important influence on my work: I try to give each of my books something of the pattern and structure and musical quality of a song. I came from a very musical family – my father played the cello and my mother would come home singing after her rehearsals with the Hampstead Choral Society. And of course, we all sang more in those days. We sang every day at school so we got to know about a hundred hymns. I joined a children’s opera group when I was eleven or twelve, so that was another thing. Every year we had our holiday in this summer school of music where my father played in quartets with other amateur musicians. My sister and I would put on shows there – take-offs of Gilbert and Sullivan, changing all the words. And then later, as a student, I busked on the streets of Paris . . . and that led on to more performing and making up songs for specific occasions.
Did any of your books start out as songs and, if so, was it necessary to adapt them?
Of all my books only A Squash and a Squeeze started out as a song and the words weren’t changed at all. Since then, though, I’ve turned many of my books into songs. Sometimes I choose a particular part of the book – for example the description of the Gruffalo – to base the song on and sometimes I will write the song from a new angle completely. The song ofTyrannosaurus Drip, which is addressed to the little dinosaur, is completely different from the book.
And what about poetry – obviously Edward Lear is an important influence . . .
Yes, I think I absorbed Edward Lear in childhood, almost by osmosis. It’s the language I love but also the slightly melancholy feel of it. Calico Pie goes,
‘And they never came back to me!/They never came back!/They never came back!/They never came back to me!’
It’s sad as well as delightfully inventive. The Jumblies is wonderful with language too, it flows so beautifully with such a pleasing lyrical, musical quality. I love the way the Jumblies decide to go to sea in a sieve, despite the sensible people advising them to stay – and then, of course, when the Jumblies return the sensible people want to go too. My book The Snail and the Whale shares some of these ideas.
Are there other writers who you love and whose work you can see traces of in your own books?
I love Arnold Lobel. It’s his inventiveness, his never-ending ability to create new fables. He’s so clever and generous: in each Frog and Toad book there are five stories. He’s never preachy, but witty and loving. They’re all about human foibles and don’t try to mould children. I love the story about the list. Toad makes this list and when the list blows away in the wind he has a kind of tantrum. Frog sensibly suggests he chases after the list, but Toad says he can’t because ‘running after my list is not one of the things that I wrote on my list of things to do!’ I’m always hoping my work will embody some of these qualities. I think Tiddler comes closest; it’s one of my favourites of my own books.
E. Nesbit is another favourite of mine. It’s her characters in particular. My Princess Mirror-belle (who comes out of a mirror) is an outrageous, boastful person and in that regard a bit like E. Nesbit’s Psammead from Five Children and It, who is magical but very grumpy! I like the way in most of her books a little magic is brought into the real world but the real world remains important and recognisable. I’ve actually just written the foreword to Hesperus’ edition of The Treasure Seekers – though that book doesn’t have any magic in it.
I wanted to ask you about the form of the picture book, what you feel it allows and what, if anything, it constrains?
Picture books can be almost anything: they can be questions and answers, as in John Burningham’s Would You Rather or Nick Sharratt’s You Choose, they can be deep, they can be whimsical, they can have words or no words. When you move up to first readers etc. there’s a bit less scope. Picture books can be so universal and to know that an adult is reading them is lovely, to feel that shared audience of adult and child. There are constraints of course – it’s important to think in terms of numbers of spreads and there should usually be some pattern in the language and perhaps some not-too-dreary repetition. But those constraints can be helpful to the writer, I think.
Did the shift to writing older fiction – I’m thinking of Running on the Cracks − pose any problems for you or offer you any new, perhaps unexpected, freedoms?
It was lovely having a challenge and doing something different and refreshing. It was very different in terms of how I ordered my writing time: I had to have much more of a routine. In other ways it was similar and my experience writing picture books really helped me when it came to writing Running on the Cracks. Fiction writers often don’t pay enough attention to plot, but picture books are so exacting, the crafting of them is so important, and that helped to equip me. Theresa Breslin said that writing fiction is like being in the dark with a map and a torch – you can see, but not far ahead. Of course it helps to have a great editor – and I did. The polishing is the fun bit for me.
How do ideas tend to arrive and evolve? Do you go looking for them or do they come to you?
Both really. If you go looking for them they’re more likely to come to you. Take The Paper Dolls for example. Malcolm has these medical magazines and there was a picture of some paper dolls on the cover of one of them. Looking at that picture, the idea for The Paper Dollscame to me in a single flash. Tiddler came very quickly too. But it’s usually a huge slog! I have a file on computer full of possible characters and stories. Most of my books stem from ideas I had several years before. Macmillan recently published Sugarlump and the Unicorn and the idea for that book began to germinate years ago. I was in a toy museum and I saw an old merry-go-round horse, which strengthened an idea for a horse book which I’d had years before that – but even then I still couldn’t see where to take it. Then the illustrator Lydia Monks (who was waiting for a new text from me) said, ‘Can we do a book about unicorns? I love drawing unicorns!’ That gave me the idea of adding a wish-granting unicorn to the story – but there was still a lot more plotting to be done in my head before I could begin to write. Once you’ve got a basic idea, the really hard thing – for me anyway – is developing it into a story with a satisfying end and some kind of twist.
What does a day at work look like when you’re embarking on a new story? Do you have particular tricks or habits?
Well, I have a lot to do outside of writing. Today for example, I had some domestic things to attend to, then this interview, and after this I’ll have a whole batch of letters from children to respond to. I have to take calls and work on devising shows. Yesterday I was working out what to do at the Hay Festival. All this takes up much more of my life than the actual writing.
But once I get a bee in my bonnet – an idea, I mean – I will beaver away intensely and badger my family about individual lines etc. and work on it day and night till I’ve done it. When I wroteRunning on the Cracks I had to have clear time and the certainty of a routine in order not to lose the thread. I found with fiction that even if you happen to be feeling uninspired that day, you at least have a plan and an idea of content. Whereas, if you’re a picture book writer, even if you’re elated with inspiration, you can’t necessarily just get it down there and then. There’s a lot of gestation and I have to get the story in my head first. I go for a walk to let ideas take their course, and often I find solutions to writing problems come to me in the bath. My advice – which I’m not very good at following myself – is to get up in the morning and do the writing first thing. Then do some sort of exercise, because the difficulties you’re coming up against in the writing often get worked out through this. Only then, in the afternoon, should you do the emails and the admin.
Do you ever hit impasses? If so, how do you get through them?
I almost always feel I’m never going to be able to manage to write the book but Malcolm says,‘Come on, you’ve always managed in the end.’ Every book is fiendishly hard but I tend to be quite philosophical about those phases when I’m short of ideas. I feel that the right idea will come along eventually and I have little bursts of pushing myself and bursts of taking it easy. I’m not always bursting with ideas by any means. My advice is to go for walks and get out and get stimulus. I recently went to a shoe museum in Canada – an idea for a book may or may not come from that.
Has it become easier to be philosophical as your confidence as a writer has grown?
In the old days I used to get terribly despondent but I busied myself with writing plays and other things that had a clear brief. I think it was hard at the beginning and then it became easier once I had a certain amount of success. Now I find it harder to find new subjects and to keep coming up with good, fresh ideas, but I find it easier to be philosophical.
Plays and performance seem to have been integral to your life as a writer. Where did that start?
In childhood, but also when I graduated from university, in the Bristol Street Theatre. We devised plays which we took to deprived areas and children would act some of the parts. I remember going to an adventure playground and doing a semi-improvised piece about Fireworks’ Day involving James the First and some witches.
I also wrote and acted in two musicals then, King Grunt’s Cake and Pirate on the Pier. They were both for adult actors and an audience of children. A couple of small companies have done productions of them and others have expressed interest but there are six characters in each, which means that they require a slightly larger cast than most touring children’s theatres have the budget for. The texts for them are on my website http://www.juliadonaldson.co.uk/musicals.
Then once I had a family, I started going into my son’s school to help with reading but I found the reading books were a little uninspiring so I began to write little plays for the children. The plays were for six characters each and we would rehearse and perform them. It worked really well and of course the children began reading with expression. It was actually teaching them to read rather than just ‘motivating’ them. It was only years later, when A Squash and a Squeeze was published, that I became confident enough to send these plays out to educational publishers. That led to me writing lots of plays for reading groups and sometimes for whole classes. Then, later still when I was the Children’s Laureate, I created a series of sixty short Plays to Read, which are published by Pearson. Some of them are by me, some by other writers, including Geraldine McCaughrean and Jeanne Willis.
One of my main projects as a Laureate was to promote performance in schools and to publish material that could be used by teachers: as well as the Plays to Read there’s another series of scripts for whole classes, based on well-known picture books and called Plays to Act. I also developed a website to help teachers dramatise picture books with their classes –http://www.picturebookplays.com/
You’ve made an extraordinary contribution to the lives of children, not only through your books but through your performances. Not to mention in your role as Children’s Laureate, when you travelled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, visiting two libraries a day. You produced an amazing array of material to support reading and performance in schools, as well as working to support deaf children and produce material for and about them. I wonder whether you feel that the author has a responsibility to the child reader? Are you conscious of wanting to convey certain truths in your work, to play a part in the nurture of children through your stories?
I’m not at all conscious of having a particular offering to children. Obviously, it’s great if a reader – adult or child − can take something from the books, but I certainly don’t think that banging home a message usually works. I’m not convinced that children pick things up in that way, and I have no desire to preach. Maybe that’s not quite true: there is one book in which I have perhaps preached a little bit – Freddie and the Fairy, about a boy who mumbles and a deaf fairy who has trouble hearing him. The message here is ‘Don’t mumble,’ and I must say I’ve had a great response from the families of deaf children about it.
The Paper Dolls kind of has a conscious message too. It’s about bereavement and memory. When I was a child I had a friend who created a place called ‘Dreamworld’. When either of us wrote a story or drew a picture we would write ‘to Dreamworld’ on it, which meant that even if it got lost or destroyed it would go there. It was the world of memory and imagination. I still find that a helpful way of looking at things. For instance, Malcolm had this conked out, rather ugly guitar which was precious because he used to busk with it, but it looked hideous on our wall. I remember saying we should get rid of it and consign it to Dreamworld, to our memories. I did the same thing with a treasured old doll of mine, Katarina. I remembered her as being utterly beautiful, with her downy fabric skin and soft hair, but she had ended up looking like a scallywag. I do hope that The Paper Dolls can be used to help children talk about bereavement. It is a hard subject for parents and children to talk about and a book can perhaps provide a little distance, can be helpful to refer to. Generally though I’d say that anything the reader might draw from in my books is there because of the person I am, rather than any conscious intention I have.