Books that should be read aloud
MANY authors prefer to live a life of quiet anonymity and never get to meet their readers, but not children's writer Julia Donaldson.
As most of her stories are written to be read aloud, the once wannabe actress loves being invited to schools and festivals to re-enact them with assorted family members.
Out of the many requests she received, one she eagerly accepted was coming to Exeter's Northcott Theatre as part of the city's second ever Exetreme Imagination Festival running during half term.
Her show, Julia Donaldson and Friends on February 23, sold out within weeks, and those lucky enough to have got tickets are in for a very special treat.
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Revealing what's in store, Julia says she will be joined by her husband Malcolm, actor Scott Hoatson, who stars in new BBC military comedy series Bluestone 42, her younger sister May, and Westcountry artist Rebecca Cobb who illustrated her book The Paper Dolls.
"I always perform with different friends and it's a lovely part of our lives," enthuses Julia, who will be staying with friends in Exeter during her visit.
"The show will be made up of four songs and four of my stories – Zog, a story about a school for dragons; The Gruffalo; The Paper Dolls; and A Squash and a Squeeze which is now 20 years old."
It was the latter story that marked the beginning of a success story that even Julia's wildest imagination could never have concocted.
After meeting her future husband Malcolm at Bristol University while studying drama and French, Julia discovered a passion for writing songs that they would perform when they went busking. It led to a career in singing and songwriting, mainly for children's television, and Julia became an expert on subject matters as diverse as window cleaning and horrible smells.
Julia, whose first childhood ambition was to become a poet, also continued to write "grown-up" songs until her television song A Squash and A Squeeze was turned into a book in 1993. It was illustrated by Axel Scheffler – the start of a long working relationship – and saw Julia unearth some plays she had previously written.
Since then she has had 20 plays published, but her real breakthrough was The Gruffalo.
"It was going to be about a tiger but I couldn't get anything to rhyme with tiger," reveals Julia, who has lived in Scotland for the past 24 years.
"Then I thought up the lines, 'Silly old fox no such thing as a', and somehow the word 'gruffalo' came to mind to fill the gap. The gruffalo looks the way things just happened to rhyme, like toes and nose, and black and back."
Despite it turning Julia into a household name it is not her personal favourite book. That is The Paper Dolls.
"Anyone with young children will tell you they have got their favourite and it's by no means always The Gruffalo," says Julia.
"I think it's a lovely thing to be able to write books that will get read aloud to children at bedtime. It's a very nice time for a parent and child, well mostly! People often say thank you for the many happy hours they have enjoyed – which is always very nice."
Although many of Julia's books work well not just in a child's bedroom but also on the stage, she says the plot is always what's at the forefront of her mind when writing a book.
"The storyline has to come first, not if it can be done on a stage," she says. "My latest book is called Superworm and is about a superworm who changes its shape into anything from a lasso to a skipping rope.
"I said to Malcolm we can't act it, but he doesn't see limitations and is so optimistic. He is up for anything and does things I thought were impossible, whereas I'm more pessimistic."
When it comes to ideas for new books, Julia is never short of them but some take longer to develop than others.
"Very often an idea will simmer on the back burner, the front burner or the oven, for anything between weeks. months or quite often years," admits Julia, who has also written many school books, including her Songbirds phonic reading scheme.
"I get half an idea and can't think where to go with it and suddenly another idea comes along out of something and it comes together.
"Once you've got a good plot you're halfway there. Coming up with a good storyline is the hardest bit and then the crafting of the language. In the books I write for younger children that's more important to me than the characters. An illustrator can really bring those characters to life where as in teenager books, characters are incredibly important."
Finding the right illustrator can also be a time-consuming part of the process and Julia reveals it took years to find someone for The Paper Dolls.
"That story is very close to my heart so it took forever," she confides. "It's important the illustrator has to be grabbed by the story and the person who ended up doing it, Rebecca Cobb, loved The Paper Dolls so much that she cried when she read it. It's sort of about bereavement and is quite a poignant book, but has a happy ending."
This summer Julia releases a sequel to The Owl and the Pussycat, and her first teenager novel, Running on the Cracks, is currently on tour in UK theatres.
It is being shown at Exeter Northcott Theatre from February 20 to 23, as part of the Exetreme Imagination Festival.
"Watching rehearsals of Running on the Cracks made me pinch myself even more than the success of my books because I've always had a love of the theatre in my blood," says Julia.
"I also had one of those moments watching the animation of Room on the Broom on Christmas Day. I never normally watch television on Christmas Day but it did seem wrong to miss it or just record it, especially as they had done it so well.
"It is also a great honour to be chosen to be the children's laureate. My term runs until June so I'm hoping the second half of the year might calm down a little bit. I like being busy but I do moan, 'how can I get anything written down when I'm so busy' – but if I do get a lull sometimes I don't get anything done!"
Tickets to see Running on the Cracks, suitable for children aged 12 and above, are still available. Tickets cost £12.50 or £30 for a family of three plus £10 each for up to three more people. Call 01392 493493 or visit www.exeternorthcott.co.uk
More details on Running on the Cracks on page 65.