One-on-one with Julia Donaldson

Julia Donaldson explains how a visit to South Africa inspired her latest book
By Amy Mac Iver

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Scottish writer and playwright, Julia Donaldson, author of the popular and best-selling children’s book The Gruffalo, is also a performer and the 2011–2013 Children’s Laureate. The idea for her latest book, The Ugly Five, came to her while on safari in the North West Province.
Tell us about your trip?
I did a book tour in 2016, putting on shows in Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as visiting the Triggerfish animation studio where the film of my book, Stick Man, was made. One of the highlights of that trip was a visit to a Saturday reading club in the township of Philippi where the children were brilliant at acting all the farmyard animals in A Squash and a Squeeze. And, a touching moment was when two librarians travelled all the way from Zambia to attend one of the shows and presented me with a beautiful beaded ‘Gruffalo’ figure made by a local craftsman.
After all the work, my husband Malcolm and I took some time off for a holiday – first walking in the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains, and then going on a five-day safari in the Madikwe Game Reserve.
What inspired you to write The Ugly Five?
The inspiration for The Ugly Five came when I was on a safari. We saw a herd of wildebeest and my husband remarked that they looked quite noble, to which our ranger replied, “Actually, Malcolm, I hate to tell you this, but the wildebeest is one of the ‘Ugly Five’.” I immediately pricked up my ears as he told us the names of the other four ugly animals, and before that drive was over I knew what the story was going to be.
Where do you find the inspiration for your children’s books?
It’s different for every book. My most famous book, The Gruffalo, is loosely based on a Chinese folktale. And I often find I get ideas when I’m on a walk or when relaxing in the bath.
How did you first get published?
In 1993, one of my songs, A Squash and a Squeeze, was made into a book with illustrations by the wonderful Axel Scheffler. Before that, I wrote songs for children’s television. It was great to hold the book in my hand without it vanishing in the air the way the songs did.
Which is your favourite book?
At the moment it’s The Ugly Five, which brings back such great memories of South Africa. [Illustrator] Axel Scheffler’s pictures make me itch to go back there.
Your books are always beautifully illustrated – can you tell us more about that?
The Ugly Five is illustrated by my most longstanding illustrator, German-born Axel Scheffler, who now lives in London. He has illustrated about 20 of my stories. Axel often doesn’t know what I’m writing about until he sees the finished manuscript, which is sent to him by our editor. Then I bite my nails till I discover whether or not he’s happy to illustrate the story. (Usually he is, thank goodness.) I try not to breathe down his neck when he’s doing the pictures, as it’s important that the illustrator has as much artistic freedom as possible.
I am always delighted by the extra witty touches that Axel includes. For instance, in Tiddler, which is set underwater, he has drawn a Gruffalo fish, which isn’t mentioned In the text.
I do work with several other illustrators, and you can find out about those books on my website, Different people are good at drawing different things. Axel generally prefers a fairytale kind of setting (though The Ugly Five is an exception), but other illustrators like doing modern-day life: one of my recent books, The Detective Dog, is full of schoolchildren and street scenes, so the illustrator Sara Ogilvie was a perfect choice for that one.
Who are some of your favourite children’s authors?
Dick King-Smith (I love his book Dragon Boy) and Arnold Lobel who wrote the witty and wise stories about Frog and Toad. I’m also a big fan of Alan Ahlberg’s picture books and poems.
What are your thoughts on children and technology? Do they spend too much time on iPads and television rather than reading books?
I think we should ask this question about adults! In my experience, children love books, and adults are the ones who are forever scrolling on their phones.
Do you have advice for others wanting to write children’s books?
Endings are very important! Think about the ending before you start writing.
Why is it so important for children to read or be read to?
Reading stimulates the imagination and broadens the mind. It helps us to understand ourselves and our surroundings and also to learn about other people and places. Without books, we might all be bigots.
There is a movement in South Africa of schools dropping homework and instead giving children more time to read. What do you think of that?
I think it’s a very good idea. It’s okay to have homework in secondary school, but I think that primary school children do enough formal learning during school and should be free in the evenings to read, play, join clubs, practise musical instruments and so on.
About the book
The Ugly Five, the new picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, was released at the end of September. It is published by Alison Green Books, an imprint of Scholastic.
About the writer
Julia Donaldson has written 204 books, 83 of which can be purchased from all good bookstores and online, while 121 of the books are for use in schools. She has also had 20 plays published, and particularly enjoys writing in rhyming verse.

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