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Muddy Meets Julia Donaldson

Muddy's Sussex editor Debbie had a chat with the legendary kids' author Julia Donaldson about books, performing, fave local attractions and buying a post office.

Julia Donaldson, who lives in neighbouring 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 Winchester this Halloween where she’ll be performing along with her husband and sister. We asked her more about the show, writing and bordering Sussex.

Photo by Steve Ullathorne

How did the show come about?

I’ve done shows previously at book festivals and theatres. It only takes five to eight minutes to read or even act out one of the books, so in order to make just one story into a show you have to pad it out. I’d done four stories and two songs for instance and they were getting more ambitious in terms of props, Powerpoint etc. We got to the stage where we wanted to have more direction and take it up a notch.

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

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 the different stories follow each other. We get some children on stage for the Superworm song. For The Magic Paintbrush – about a girl who is given a paintbrush that makes things real – we had help from a conjurer. Then The Cook and the King is a really silly, funny story.

It’s a lovely way of acting out the children’s favourites and some stories they may not know about. Like rock stars do their greatest hits and some new material!

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 better rhyme that way, don’t just make 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 then add ch, do, who, loo etc on the end to see if it works.

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.

Check out Julia along with her friend the Gruffalo next week at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, Thurs 31 Oct – Sat 2 Nov.

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