Bestselling author and former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson has a new exhibition in Birmingham. Graham Young reports.
It’s 20 years since the publication of Julia Donaldson’s first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, and more than a 150 other works have followed since.
How strange, then, that our interview should be on the day of yet more news headlines about the accommodation problems caused by the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ initiative.
A Squash and a Squeeze could almost be the title of a modern TV documentary about how people are having to live in houses that are too small for them, while others face losing benefits because their property is too big.
But it was originally based on an Eastern European Jewish folk tale.
And, like all of Julia’s stories from Room on the Broom to The Snail and the Whale, your imagination can make of it what you will.
What is a Gruffalo? Who is The Troll? What did the Ladybird hear?
Answers to these questions and more can be found at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s summer exhibition of stories, rhythm and rhyme.
If it’s as popular as its year-long debut in Newcastle has proved to be, then A Squash And A Squeeze – Sharing Stories with Julia Donaldson will be pulling in the crowds at the Gas Hall all the way until November 3.
What will happen to visitors who follow in Toddle Waddle’s footsteps or climb into the cave with Cave Baby?
You can also step inside the special A Squash and a Squeeze house and sing along to her songs on Julia’s Jukebox.
As well being an author, playwright, poet and performer, the musical side of Julia’s output comes, in part, from the fact that while she was studying drama and French at the University of Bristol, she met and subsequently married Derek, a guitar-playing paediatrician.
They would go busking together on their travels, writing songs for each country such as The Spaghetti Song.
Learning how to write about anything and everything for children’s television led to Julia’s first breakthrough in print in 1993, when one of her television songs, A Squash and a Squeeze was turned into a book.
The exhibition includes original artwork by many of Julia’s illustrators, including details of how she works with her most famous collaborator, Axel Scheffler.
Since he’s based in London and Julia lives in Glasgow, their exchanges of letters shows how a character like The Gruffalo (1999) was developed from afar.
They didn’t even meet until the launch party for A Squash and a Squeeze – after two other illustrators had turned down the job – but Alex said in an interview earlier this year that the secret of their collaboration was that ‘‘Julia accepts my illustrations and I accept her text’’.
Julia, in turn, says: “Illustrators are the main artists that we have and with children’s books they have huge scope.”
The Gruffalo has been a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 10 million copies in more than 40 languages and had been adapted for the stage in both the West End and on Broadway.
It was one of the milestones which helped Julia to become the Children’s Laureate from 2011-2013, until she handed over the reigns to Malorie Blackman.
So if someone had said would you mind just doing another year...?
“I’d have wondered if I could keep it up,” admits Julia, now 64.
“Two years was the right amount of time. I learned a lot.”
That process has reinforced her understanding of how children learn things in different ways and at different speeds.
“I am absolutely against the testing of five and six-year-olds,” she says.
“Children get into reading in different ways and to rigidly just do phonics would be a recipe for disaster.”
To read words with phonics, children match their recognition of sounds to letters rather than using a more traditional ‘look and say’ approach.
“Reading stories is a good incentive for them to unlock stories for themselves, but we have a pendulum from one approach (phonics) to another and children can be put off,” says Julia.
“They are very sensitive to what people think of them and something can stay with them for a long time.
“I wrote little plays for children and I think that’s the best way to help them to learn.
“When you are reading very short plays for a sketch, the weakest gets the smallest part.
“Everyone becomes familiar with the new vocabulary, and then you perform it... all in one afternoon.
“It’s brilliant for self confidence.”
By the same token, it’s always interesting to ask authors what they think of Enid Blyton (1897-1968), a prolific writer who helped generations to fall in love with reading only for her style to fall out of favour.
“Our teachers wouldn’t let us read her,” reveals Julia.
“But it’s silly to ban authors. Her style isn’t the greatest, but she wrote rollicking adventure stories.”
What is remarkable about Julia’s enduring success is that Hamish, the eldest of her three sons including Alastair and Jerry, committed suicide shortly before Christmas in 2003.
He was 25 and had a history of mental illness.
But the fact that his death was at roughly the halfway point of her ongoing literary success story illustrates how resilient Julia is herself, fuelled as she is by a lifetime of reading and understanding that dealing with loss is part of life.
What advice would she give to anyone following in her Children’s Laureate footsteps in the future?
“Book two holidays before you start, otherwise your diary just gets full,” she smiles.
“I was really pleased to see Malorie was keen to promote libraries as it’s lovely to do a library tour.”
Julia was encouraged to read widely by an enthusiastic librarian when she was young and to mark National Libraries Day in February 2012, she published a poem describing libraries as places to “meet your heroes, old and new, from William the Conqueror to Winnie the Pooh”.
What of the big new city libraries, then, like Newcastle City Library (opened in June, 2009) and now the Library of Birmingham, due to open on September 3 at a cost of almost £190 million?
“I think they are absolutely fantastic and I’m looking forward to seeing the one in Birmingham,” says Julia.
“Then I heard a lot of the other libraries in Newcastle were going to close.
“Although it’s great to have state-of-the-art libraries, it makes my heart sink if it’s at the expense of local, branch libraries.
“People might go to a library on the outskirts every fortnight, but only to a city centre library once or twice per year.”
Julia’s website tells you how she was ‘‘brought up in a tall terraced Victorian London house with her parents, grandmother, aunt, uncle, younger sister Mary and cat Geoffrey (a prince in disguise)’’.
Little did she know then that she would end up in the National Portrait Gallery (courtesy of a painting by Peter Monkman) or receive an MBE in 2011.
“The Queen said to me ‘Your an author’, and I said ‘Yes Ma’am’.
“I think she’s given a two-word biography about everybody.
“I wasn’t nervous, it’s not like you are making a speech or anything.”
Julia was introduced to husband Malcolm by fellow University of Bristol student Colin Sell, a pianist whose own showbusiness career has seen him working on shows like Whose Line is It Anyway? and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.
Malcolm’s work took the couple to Glasgow a quarter of a century ago and a house where one room is now full of props from floor to ceiling.
“People always think it takes longer to get from London to Glasgow than from Glasgow to London,” she says.
“Malcolm has just retired now, so we may move house.
“But we’d also like to spend a year or two seeing the best bits of Scotland that we’ve never seen.”
* Take a trip into the deep dark wood
* A Squash And A Squeeze, Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Edmund Street, Birmingham B1 1BB
* Admission: adults £6.50, children (three to 16) £5.50; students, £5.50; seniors (60+) £5.50, family of four £20. Income support £2. Pay at the Gas Hall reception desk, pay online via www.bmag.org.uk or call 0121 303 1966.
* The Gruffalo’s Summer Disco will be held in the Water Hall from 11am-1pm on Saturday, August 3. Participants are encouraged to dress up as their favourite Julia Donaldson character. Admission: £3 per child, accompanying adults free of children.
* Julia's recommended websites
* Plays to Act: www.pearsonschoolsandfecolleges.co.uk
* Mini Musicals: www.bloomsbury.com