The traditional Chinese tale was about a tiger - a tiger and a fox. But, as Donaldson soon discovered, nothing rhymes with “tiger". And as she writes in verse, that had to go.
Silly old Fox! Doesn’t he know, There's no such thing as a. . .
And so the Gruffalo was born.
Donaldson looks for traditional tales everywhere, especially trickster ones. Most of her picture book stories are based on these, or alternatively on some natural phenomenon which she springs unexpectedly upon us. In Monkey Puzzle Butterfly keeps locating different, highly unlikely animals for the little monkey who has lost his mum, because “None of my babies looks like me"– oh, of course! we exclaim.
She says she finds her verse, which looks so easy, “agonizing" to write. But once the first draft is done, then she enjoys the polishing – the “tweaking". She is widely known, and much awarded, for her rhyming picture books, but now she is writing for slightly older children as well. And again calling on the traditional tales.
Princess Mirror-Belle comes out of the mirror. She looks just like quiet Ellen, but she behaves completely differently. She is imperious, demanding, self-opinionated – just as fairy tale princesses are wont to be. And she makes all sorts difficulties for Ellen.
She make problems for Donaldson too, because the two girls together have to be kept out of the way of Ellen’s family (who think Ellen just has an imaginary friend). Donaldson has to devise places where Ellen can believably be alone, or with people who won’t report back to her family - a hospital, a friend of a friend’s Christmas party, a trip to the beach with grandparents. Most of the incidents involve elements of a traditional princess tale, such as sleeping for years, or a magic golden ball.
These episodic chapters are just the right length for a bedtime story – a genre of which there are too few written at the moment. The Giant and the Joneses is longer, and a continuous story – maybe a good one as a first full read-aloud-at-bedtime novel, or an early read-yourself one.
In this, the giant girl, Jumbeelia, has a fascination with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. One day she throws some beans over the cloudy edge of the giants’ kingdom and, lo and behold, a beanstalk does grow! She descends, and collects three children (the Joneses), a sheep and a ride-on lawn-mower from the miniature land she finds below. Back at home at the top of the beanstalk, she puts them all in the doll’s house, and enjoys looking after them – for a while. Eventually she gets bored and swaps them with her older brother. When he isn’t seeing how well they can drive a toy truck into a wall he neglects them completely. They must find their way home. The point of view changes between the children and the giants. Donaldson loved Mary Norton’s The Borrowers as a child, and this was an influence
Donaldson also calls on her own children’s behaviour. One son was a collector. Another had a friend who lived in the wardrobe behind the mirror and could come out through it. She points out that people often want to know what’s behind the mirror, but she doesn’t know. Possibly everything Mirror-Belle says about her world is true – castles, magic slippers, flying horses, the lot!
She enjoys the sort of fantasy that involves real children in their real world, with just one magic item (like Edith Nesbit’s) – “what if?" stories. She’s not interested in creating complete imaginary worlds like Tolkien’s. It’s the delight of what happens when magic comes unexpectedly into our world that fascinates her, just as her ideas fascinate both girls and boys (pity about the pink and purple covers on Mirror-Belle!)
I met “Dr Gruffalo" - her medico husband Malcolm – who acts the Gruffalo in their touring performances. He is the only person I’ve met to whom the common literary description “twinkly-eyed” actually applies. In Germany they toured with her illustrator Alex Scheffler – he acted as well, doing parts in German. I wish I could see them perform – but on her website http://www.juliadonaldson.co.uk/poems.htm there is a clip of her singing one of her songs. And you’ll see what a delight she is too – take a look!
Dr Virginia Lowe is author of Stories, Pictures and Reality - Two children tell (Routledge, 2007) based on her record of the responses to books of a girl and a boy from birth to eight. She operates the Create a Kids’ Book manuscript assessment agency - workshops, assessments and e-courses - createakidsbook.alphalink.com.au