Gruffalos and Ladybirds and Dragons! Oh My!

Stewart Pringle talks to bestselling children's writer Julia Donaldson about bringing her gang of much loved literary creations to the Edinburgh stage

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 04 Aug 2015

"I often think about it when I’m writing. I’m often thinking about whether this is something we can perform, about writing something we can actually perform onstage. But it doesn’t always work like that. I’ll aim for that and end up with a book about a superworm going around rescuing all his insect friends, and I’ll have no idea how to stage it at all." 

This free-wheeling imagination, one that refuses to be cowed by the practicalities of staging and flings out crime-fighting invertebrates, love-struck scarecrows and green-pimpled, orange-eyed monsters with gay abandon, belongs to Julia Donaldson. One of the UK’s most beloved children’s authors, her books are the pre-school equivalent of crack cocaine. Read, re-read and re-re-re-read by millions of parents and children across the world, the combination of Donaldson’s ear-worm rhymes and linguistic invention, and Axel Scheffler’s wide-eyed illustrations is utterly irresistible. 

Donaldson has been a stalwart of the Edinburgh International Book Festival "since the start of this century, when The Gruffalo first took off", but this year marks her first return to the Fringe since 2006, and her most full-on and ambitious show yet. 

"There’s such a lot to do for this show", Donaldson explains. "There’s so much more going on than I’m used to. Our last show in 2006 was just me and my husband Malcolm, and it was a miscellany thing. Excerpts from the books and some songs. Now we have a director, and a set, and a cast of five. It’s a really full show."

The show in question, Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts, will be taking over the Udderbelly all through the Fringe. It's all set in a library preparing for a reading by the author, "with a couple of dippy librarians throwing the books back and forth" until she arrives and brings her stories to life, the room unfolding into familiar scenes from her work. Donaldson’s not giving away too much, but visits by the dragons of Zog; the farmyard avenger from What the Ladybird Heard; and a certain hairy favourite with "terrible teeth in his terrible jaws" are all promised. 

Part of the brilliance of frequent collaborator Scheffler’s illustrations is the way they are able to fold out onto the stage, to become an instantly recognisable Donaldson world, something which theatre companies Tall Stories and Scamp Theatre have taken full advantage of in their numerous rich and musical adaptations. Scamp are returning to Edinburgh themselves this year, Donaldson points out: "They got in touch and offered to produce my show, and they’ve been great. They’re doing their own production of my book The Scarecrows’ Wedding in the same purple cow a little later in the day."

Donaldson may have recruited some "proper, professional actors" for this production, together with director Peta Maurice, a Scamp Theatre stalwart, but Gruffalos also stars her sister Mary and husband Malcolm, so it’s still got the feel of a family affair.

After all, that’s how it all began. Before The Gruffalo, before there was (or rather wasn’t) Room on the Broom, Donaldson met her husband and constant performing partner Malcolm as a busker in the 1970s. Together they wrote and performed folk songs across the UK, Europe and the US. They continued to write together through the 1980s, eventually breaking into contributing songs to children’s television at the turn of the decade.

It was one of these songs, ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’, about an old woman who learns a lesson about perspective from a crush of farmyard animals, that provided the basis for Donaldson's first book. When she found herself on the book fair and promotion circuits, and wanted to bring some performance elements in, she turned to her family first.

"Obviously there was Malcolm, but also my two sons, and sometimes my nieces – even my publicists would get dragged into performing on occasion."

There’ll be a return to her roots this year at Edinburgh too, as the husband and wife perform a set of their songs for grown-ups, honed at those folk gigs of their youth, in the Book Festival’s own Spiegeltent on 20 August. The performance takes the form of a loose autobiography, "telling the story of us busking, and meeting each other, becoming parents, raising children".

Other performances and events include a chat with James Robertson, who has translated Donaldson's books into brilliant Scots dialect (read The Gruffalo’s Wean and fall in love all over again) and a discussion of the work she’s created in children’s workshops with deaf charity Life and Deaf. She has a busy Edinburgh ahead of her.

Donaldson credits her history of performance for informing some of the rhythms and rhymes of her work, that inimitable vocal pleasure that comes from reading her ingenious and jangling rhymes. "The books are designed to be read aloud, and the more you perform them the better sense you get of turns of phrase," she says. They certainly stand up to repeated reads, and Donaldson recalls one parent who had been driven to stashing their copy of The Gruffalo behind the radiator to prevent their child from demanding it be read for the fourtieth or so time. But she takes this for the compliment that it surely is – "they were quick to tell me how much they’d enjoyed it for the first 39 times."

The admiration that spreads from child to parent, the genuine pleasure and enjoyment that can be derived from reciting lines over and over until the child can recite them on their own, is something Donaldson shares with very few of her peers. "What people usually say about the books, and not just The Gruffalo, is that they appeal to adults as well as children and that they're fun to read aloud. It helps if you're a parent and you actually like a book." It’s a fair bet there will be as many adults as children keen to see what magic Donaldson and her team unfold on stage this August.