“I created a monster – and it came back to bite me” says The Gruffalo creator
When author Julia Donaldson dreamt up The Gruffalo, it became an unstoppable success. Now The Gruffalo’s Child is set to be the roaring highlight of Christmas Day TV
In the limelight: Julia Donaldson, children”s author, pictured with her famous character The Gruffalo
Julia Donaldson is running out of wall space at her Glasgow home. The shelves are already heaving with copies of the 160 books she’s written, and more arrive by the day. Her books have been translated into 32 languages.
Some, like the Hebrew ones, read right to left while others, such as the French ones, change the genders of the characters. Then there are the CDs, DVDs and lots and lots of merchandise.
Julia’s biggest creation, of course, is the Gruffalo. The tale of the canny mouse and the scary but dim creature he finds in the deep, dark woods regularly tops favourite children’s books lists and has sold more than ten million copies.
It’s made her a multi- millionaire and helped her win the title of Children’s Laureate, a post she will hold for two years. But Julia, 63, confesses to a certain ambivalence towards her orange-eyed, purple- prickled creature. She feels as though she’s created a monster that’s rampaged out of her control.
‘I’ve had enough of the Gruffalo,’ she admits rather grumpily. ‘I’ve even had enough of saying I’ve had enough of the Gruffalo. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. He gets all the limelight. But my other books are nearly as successful and when fans talk to me at signings, The Gruffalo isn’t everyone’s favourite book.
‘I feel like the mouse in my story. He thinks he’s made up this monster called the Gruffalo in his head. But then he meets him. I made up the Gruffalo but he’s taken on a life of his own. Everywhere I go there are Gruffalo books, posters, napkins and fridge magnets.’
That’s all very well – except today Julia is supposed to be talking about the sumptuous new BBC adaptation of The Gruffalo’s Child, her follow-up book to the, erm, you-know-what. Two years ago when the Beeb showed The Gruffalo on Christmas Day, 9.8 million tuned in to watch it. A further half a million loved it so much they bought the DVD.
Now the same team – including A-list stars Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt and Robbie Coltrane – have come together to create another sure-fire hit. ‘I did love the film,’ Julia says. ‘And it was very gratifying to have so many stars in it. I used to think having famous people involved in cartoons didn’t matter – I thought it was mainly to attract more viewers. But the cast were just fantastic. Helena’s superb as the narrator. She has a way of making it sound sinister without hamming it up.
‘Scottish actress Shirley Henderson, who is the voice of the Gruffalo’s Child, is terrific as well. Before they even began making the movie they filmed all the actors as they said their lines to get the expressions from their faces. You can really see that in the Gruffalo’s Child, the shape of her mouth comes from Shirley.’ Julia resisted the lure of adapting her books for years.
After the success of 2009, The Gruffalo”s Child is going to have an even better time slot at 6.30pm
She got one big-money Hollywood offer for The Gruffalo but turned it down because they ‘wouldn’t stick to my text, so there was no point to it’. Another television company wanted tomake a 50-show educational programme with the Gruffalo and the mouse teaching children the alphabet. ‘Yuck!’ cries Julia. Then there was a flurry of production companies who thought they could make a half-hour show out of The Gruffalo. Julia went with the one that promised to get it screened on Christmas Day.
After the success of 2009, The Gruffalo’s Child is going to have an even better time slot at 6.30pm. Although the book is aimed at pre-schoolers, it’s a film that will be loved by all the family. It’s pretty dark and a little scary in parts, but there are moments of real humour. The Gruffalo’s Child, terrified byher father’s tales of the ‘big, bad mouse’, ventures into the woods to see if he really exists. There, she comes across the predators – the owl, the snake and the fox – who were tricked by the mouse’s tales of the Gruffalo.
‘I like the fact that it’s not all frolicking and jolly snowball fights,’ says Juliaof the production, which she oversaw but did not take an active role in. ‘There are dark moments but there’s also tremendous slapstick in it.They’ve done a great job and totally stuck to the book.’
There’sa steely side to Julia, and perhaps it’s no surprise. Her girlish, sing-song voice and smiling looks hide an incredible woman who has overcome enormous adversity to get where she is. She grew up in London’supmarket Hampstead with her family; grandparents, aunts and uncles all under one roof. Julia and her sister shared the downstairs with their parents; when she was six, her father contracted polio, which left him wheelchair-bound.
She grew up desperate to be an actress and, aged 12, landed her first role, as an understudy to a fairy in a West End production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which starred a young Judi Dench. Julia studied French and drama at Bristol University and it was during a year abroad, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, that she met Malcolm, a medical student and guitarist who went on to become her husband.
They started out busking together and tothis day Malcolm, a paediatrician, performs with Julia when she sings the music she writes to accompany her books. Her acting career never really took off but she made a living as a songwriter for children’s television. This was despite becoming increasingly deaf – she wears a hearing aid but her only moan is that she misses key moments in plays ifthe
pitch of a line is out of her hearing range. “It’s annoying when everyone else is roaring with laughter but I missed the joke.’
I was never going to go out and buy fivevillas and a yacht – that’s not me, even if I was in that pay bracket. I’ve already done the things that really matter.
In 1993 a publisher contacted her about one of her songs, A Squash And A Squeeze. Did she think she could turn it into a book The answer, of course, was yes and she hasn’t stopped since, churning them out at a rate of nine a year. The success of The Gruffalo, which came out in 1999, and the others have made her millions.
But at the same time things could not have been more difficult in her personal life. After a lifetime of being in trouble, Hamish, the eldest of her three sons, was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.
He committed suicide aged 25 in 2002 by walking in front of a train. It’s a subject she finds painful to talk about, but on Desert Island Discs a couple of years ago she said she’d been terrified about what would happen to him without her, adding, ‘Just the thought of him growing old and becoming some old wino… of course, I didn’t want him to die but I used to sometimes wish he’d die before us.’
These days Julia says she is ‘as content as anyone else, I suppose’. She enjoys her riches without spending lavishly; her biggest expenditure has been a flat in Edinburgh because she loves the city and its arts and books festivals. She’s also helped out her two other sons, who have both started families. ‘It’s nice to not have to worry,’ she says. ‘I was never going to go out and buy five villas and a yacht – that’s not me, even if I was in that pay bracket. I’ve already done the things that really matter.’
She loves being the Children’s Laureate and is planning to spend her tenure supporting the campaign to keep libraries open. She’s also writing a series of short sketches that will help children learn to read through drama. ‘It’s a huge opportunity for me,’ she says of her role. ‘I’m learning but it’s also made me influential. It’s given me a voice.’
But fans should not worry about their heroine giving up the day job; with a new five-week-old grandson, Leo, and an 18-month-old granddaughter, Poppy, she’s never felt so inspired. ‘Up until now these things have just come out of my head,’ she says of her books. ‘But seeing how Poppy responds to things has given me so many more ideas. It’s very exciting.’
The Gruffalo’s Child is on BBC1 on Christmas Day at 6.30pm.