Sunday 14 November 2004

The Making of the Gruffalo

Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo bends all the rules for writing marketable picture books

‘How a picture book comes into being’, workshop during Writer’s Day 2004 ('Go Fish! Creating Stories that Really Hook)' of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators British Isles in Winchester, United Kingdom on 6 November 2004

Silly old fox
Doesn’t he know?
There’s no such thing as a –

And Julia Donaldson tried Snoog, Margle jing, Snargle, Snaple. But these were not easy to rhyme no matter how one twisted and turned the phrases. So it had to be something that rhymed with “know” – Gruffalo!

Thus was a children’s classic born – through the exigencies of rhyme. This despite the fact that children’s book publishers in the UK actively discourage rhyming texts to increase a book’s chances of translation. “A co-edition allows publishers to recoup costs on picture books, which are very expensive to produce,” says one editor.

And yet, and yet.

Donaldson’s engaging verses have recouped the publisher’s costs many times over, and almost all 28 translations across the world do rhyme.

Donaldson as a workshop speaker is as quirky and captivating as her books. She begins by taking up her guitar and singing a song, forgetting the lyrics, but never mind, and enjoining bemused attendees to join in the chorus. The room is littered with books and crumpled scraps of illustration that she rifles through to illustrate her talk before giving up, saying, “Ah well, it will turn up later.” Then she organises a play-acting session – recruiting the novelist Malorie Blackman to play the fox and various other would-be illustrators and writers to act out the roles of the snake, the owl and the gruffalo. She, of course, is the star of the production – the mouse, in all her squeaky glory, pattering up and down the aisles. At the end of the workshop, during the question and answer session, she holds a hand up and asks the audience to wait while she whips out her hearing aid. “I can’t really hear,” she apologises.

It may not be a straightforward lesson in the craft of picture books but one certainly can’t help falling in love with the charm of it all.

Indeed, Donaldson fell into writing rather by mistake. “I wasn’t trying to write a picture book,” she says of her first title A Squash and a Squeeze. “I was trying to write a song!” She wrote the song for children’s television and ten years later a publisher approached her to turn it into a picture book.

But that first book did not open the golden gates to children’s publishing. “I could paper the house with rejection letters,” she says ruefully.

Characteristically, The Gruffalo emerged out of a project that was not intended to become a picture book.

“I had been asked to write some little plays based on some regular tales,” says Donaldson. “When the children were little, we used to have a story tape about a Chinese girl and a tiger. The tiger follows her through the jungle and all the animals run away making the tiger think that they are afraid of the girl, when they are actually afraid of him.”

Donaldson began writing the play but soon changed her mind. “It was too good. I thought, this is the germ of a picture book. I don’t know why, but one day, eighteen months later, I decided to start the book.”

Originally the monster of the story was a tiger. “I had decided that the mouse would meet specific predators first and then trick them somehow, stop them from eating him, by saying he’s going to meet this tiger. I was writing away but then it became really hard when I had to think of words that rhymed with tiger.”

He ought to know
He really should
There are no tigers
In this wood

But this was as far as the rhyming went. “I thought if I created an imaginary creature, it would be easier to rhyme it.”

Once the gruffalo was created, she had to work out how the mouse manages to discourage all the predators from eating him. One of her children, reading a draught of the piece, asked, “Why didn’t they just eat him right away?”

Thus some of the most (literally) delicious moments in the story “came out of problems with the plot”. When the predators, not believing that the mouse had a monster friend, ask him: “Where are you meeting him?” The mouse quickly replies, “HERE – and his favourite food is … roasted fox, owl ice cream, snake …”

When Donaldson was ready to give up on the text – “I was sick of it, I thought I could never publish this book!” – one of her children gave her a gentle push. “Go on, Mum. I think it’s good.”

But once Donaldson finished the book, there was the problem of getting it published.

With the first publisher she approached, a year went by with no word. Her husband suggested that she send the text to Axel Scheffler, the well-known illustrator, “to see if what he thinks of it”. Though Donaldson’s name has now become inextricably tied to Scheffler, she did not meet him until much later.

“Literally a week after I wrote Axel, I got a letter from Alison Green, saying ‘This letter might take you a bit by surprise’ and asking for the right to publish it ‘even if Axel decides not to illustrate it’!” Donaldson remembers leaping about in the room with joy.

“The best bit of all,” she says, “was going nyaah nyaah to the other publishers!”

Interestingly, the editors did not change a single word of Donaldson’s rhyming text, the only memorable issue being whether the animals should be wearing clothes or not.

Says Donaldson, “I suppose the lesson to be learned is: don’t give up when someone is sitting on something!”

Julia Donadson’s writing career started when she was a penniless student in Paris and went busking. Busking led to song-writing which led to writing rhyming picture books. The Gruffalo and Room on a Broom have won many prizes and regularly top the UK picture book bestseller charts. Julia is also the author of the popular Princess Mirror-Belle stories and several short novels, including Giants and Joneses, which is to be made into film by Warner Brothers.

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