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From Songs to Stories

March, 2007
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On Julia Donaldson’s fifth birthday, her father gave her a very fat book called “The Book of a Thousand Poems.” She loved it. “I read the IMG_7409 poems, recited them, learnt them and then started making up some of my own,” she recalled. “I wanted to be a poet all those years ago. I later decided I would rather go on the stage. That didn’t quite work out, so I did other jobs – teaching and publishing. But somehow I’ve ended up doing what I wanted to do when I was five years old.”

  That is, she’s still writing. Donaldson started her career writing songs for children’s television. In 1993, one of her songs, A Squash and a Squeeze, was made into a book. Since then, she has written more than one hundred books and plays for children and teenagers.

  Donaldson’s real breakthrough was writing the rhyming story The Gruffalo, which won three major British book awards: the Smarties Prize, the Blue Peter Award for “The Best Book to Read Aloud” and the Experian “Big Three” Award. The Gruffalo remains the UK’s best-selling picture book. Another of Donaldson’s books, Room on the Broom, has been shortlisted for two other awards: the Children’s Book Award and the Sheffield Children’s Book Award.

  Asked which of her own books is her favorite, Donaldson said it keeps changing. “At the moment I have two: ‘The Snail and the Whale’ for younger children and ‘The Giants and the Joneses’ for older ones.”

  In fact, her novel The Giants and the Jones is going to be made into a film by the same team who made the Harry Potter movies.

  When she is not writing, Donaldson acts out her stories at book festivals and theatres and visits schools and libraries all over the world. “I really enjoy getting the children in the audience to help me act out the stories and sing the songs,” said the author. For her first visit to China recently, LittleStar met her on the stage of Yew Chung International School of Beijing.

IMG_7358   LittleStar: You seem so fond of acting, how did you get into writing books for children?

  Julia: It is very true that I like acting. I learned drama in university and also the French language. Part of the course was to go to Paris and learn drama there. Because life was very expensive there, I had my guitar and went to sing on the streets with a girlfriend. We sang songs and we collected the money.

  Later, I started to write songs and sent the songs to BBC television. A long time later in 1993, one of my television songs called “A Squash And A Squeeze” was made into a book, with illustrations by Axel Scheffler. It was great to hold the book in my hand without it vanishing in the air the way the songs did. This prompted me to unearth some plays I’d written for a school reading group, and since then I’ve had 20 plays published.

  Most children love acting, and it’s a tremendous way to improve their reading. That is how I started writing a book. Now when you are a writer, you are often asked to talk and perform the stories in your book. In my case, this is easy as I can sing and perform myself.

  LittleStar: What were your songs about?

  Julia: All sorts of funny things. I have even written songs about Italian pastas, different skin colors or roller-skating. I even became an expert at writing to order on such subjects as guinea pigs, window-cleaning and horrible smells. “We want a song about throwing crumpled-up wrapping paper into the bin” was a typical request from the BBC.

  The songs are for a BBC children’s program. Once there was an educational program called “Think about Science” for the five-year-olds, and I wrote 17 songs about how we need food, how we need rest, as well as songs about space shuttle or environment.

  LittleStar: Writing books are more complicated than the songs, don’t you think so?

  Julia: Yes, except for the tunes. A lot of my books are rhyming picture books, a little bit like a song. The difference is a book must tell a story really while a song could be about funny things like a hat. To think about good story and good plot always makes it hard.

  LittleStar: Many figures in your books are animals, why?

  Julia: It is true. Well, it is a common thing in children’s books. Like very old fables, for example, Tiger and Fox. Animals in one sense, and in another sense they are representing certain qualities. Like the ancient story on the hare and tortoise. Hare is like those kind of people who are very gifted but rely on it and lazy, while tortoise shows the way of a person who is not so gifted but working hard and persevere.

  LittleStar: How did you choose these animals, like the gruffalo?

  Julia: Well, the gruffalo should be the tiger. Since I could not get anything to rhyme with “tiger,” I invented the gruffalo. The gruffalo looks the way he does because various things that just happened to rhyme (like toes and nose, and black and back). The reason I chose the mouse is because of the size, so small that every other animal wants to eat it.

  LittleStar: Where do you get your ideas? Has traveling given you new ideas?

  Julia: Anywhere and everywhere: things that happen to my children; memories of my own childhood; things people say; places I go to; old folk tales and fairy stories. The hard part for me is not getting the idea, it is turning it into a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

  I have been traveling a lot, and this is my first time to China. To be honest, I have been too busy to think some ideas. But my trip to New Zealand did give me a great story idea. Secret.

  Writing is really hard work, as many authors admit. But what do you enjoy about it?

  Well, I think most hard work is also satisfying. I find the actual writing quite hard work. I often get stuck, or feel that I’m plodding along in an uninspired way. But when I realise that a story is working after all it’s a very exciting feeling. and I love doing all the polishing touches at the end (or “tweaking” as publishers call it). It’s lovely when the first rough illustrations arrive and I see how my characters are going to look.

  Since your first book was published in 1993, how did you keep up with children’s interests nowadays?

  My strength is writing rhyming picture books and songs, which are more universally accepted. I am also lucky that many of my books, like The Gruffalo, are quite classic. For the classics, even when the children grow up, will be still popular.

  LittleStar: You were involved in teaching before, right?

  Julia: Yes, actually I taught older children English in a secondary school. I really enjoyed it and found it so rewarding. [When I was young,] I got teachers who had so much influence on me. When I myself was a teacher, like years later, the father of one of the students told me that his daughter was studying English in university and the turning point was she studied the book The Animal Farm. Then, I suddenly remembered the little girl who was the only child in my class understood that The Animal Farm was mainly about communism while other children thought it was about animals. It is so good feeling that you find yourself helping people.

  LittleStar: About writing, do you have some suggestions for the children?Combo-1

  Julia: I don’t really like to give advice on writing because I think if children want to write anything they just do it in their own ways. When I was in a school in Scotland, I was amazed by a little boy who made tiny books. There was a library in the class with all tiny books made by him, and he lent them to the other children. Once he said: “I had quite a headache and I need a secretary as there is just so much to do…” Then, the other children in his class all volunteered to be his secretary…

  I would not say to make your own little library, but children can always make it in their own way. You can’t say keeping writing a bit every day. I don’t do these things myself. Just read, read and read books that you enjoy or books that gives your imagination, finally it helps.

By Xing Yangjian

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