The Gruffalo's Child: Julia Donaldson on her creation's new TV adaptation
The sequel to The Gruffalo has been animated for Christmas. Eithne Farry talks to its author
The sequel to The Gruffalo has been animated for Christmas. Eithne Farry talks to its author, Julia Donaldson
Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson has been thinking a lot about snow. It’s falling past her window in Glasgow, and it wonderfully matches the winter landscape of the world of The Gruffalo’s Child, the animation of her best-selling children’s picture book, which will be shown on BBC One on Christmas Da
“The snow makes it quite magical, very Christmassy,” says the author. “The animators have had a lot of fun with the weather. I love the humorous touches” – there’s a lovely moment with a wide-eyed frog staring unblinking up through a sheet of skateable lake ice – “because the story hasn’t got a lot of carefree bits in it, the Gruffalo’s child is on a quest the whole time, really.”
That quest sees the Gruffalo’s child, voiced with plucky sweetness by Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter), set off through a predator-packed wood to find the mysterious Big Bad Mouse, the intrepid creature who made such an impact in The Gruffalo, by outwitting the eponymous monster with “terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws” from Donaldson’s iconic, rhyming 1999 book.
“That was the starting point for The Gruffalo’s Child,” says Donaldson. “In the Gruffalo’s mind the Big Bad Mouse had grown to epic proportions. The Gruffalo was still terrified by the idea of the mouse – having flashbacks, nightmares…”
The mouse has become almost a bogeyman figure, “the sort of thing that everyone warns their child about. I originally imagined the Gruffalo telling his tale to a whole colony of Gruffalos, a cave full, then the publisher suggested it would be much stronger if it was just one of them, his child, and she would go on the adventure, and now I can’t imagine it any other way.”
Donaldson, who was born in 1948 and studied French and drama at college, began her career as a songwriter, composing tunes and lyrics for children’s TV programmes. “That’s what I was for probably longer than I’ve been a book writer. I get the tune in my head, I fiddle around on the piano and then my stalwart husband comes along with the guitar and works out the precise chords.”
She’s gone back to her roots with her new songbook, The Gruffalo’s Child and Other Songs, which she’ll be performing with her husband Malcolm at Sadlers Wells Studio in February. “I was brought up on poems and songs, and that’s why I do what I do. I like to feel that I’m part of that chain, that maybe some of the children will be inspired to create carefully crafted texts. Some of the [children’s] stuff out there is trite, the lyrics could be scrawled on the back of an envelope.”
So will there be a third Gruffalo instalment? Donaldson is not sure. “I’d always said that I wasn’t keen to write a sequel [to The Gruffalo] unless I had a good idea, because I didn’t want it to be like Tom and Jerry or have the mouse and the Gruffalo becoming pals.” A third tale is not out of the question though: “The only vague idea is about a Gruffalo Granny,” she says.
Children send in mail to her by the sack-load, full of pictures and plays, scrapbooks and stories and letters with the oft-asked question about how she dreamt up The Gruffalo (“it’s based on an old Chinese folk tale, and was originally going to feature a tiger, but I couldn’t find any words to rhyme with tiger”). There are some unusual queries, too. “One child wrote: ‘Do you have your own library? Do you have your own husband?’ It’s lovely, I put some of them up on the loo wall.”
Donaldson is passionate about libraries and keeping them open. “When I visit schools, or libraries, the children have to perform to me before I do my stuff. It’s fantastic. And for a lot of children who aren’t au fait with books, acting out a story can be a way into reading.” Recent research has shown that some children don’t own a single book, an issue that as Children’s Laureate Donaldson has been asked to comment on. “There are four key things affecting literacy – the number of books in the home, trips to the library, how much parents talk to their children, and how much the television is on. It is supposed to be bad for the child to be plonked in front of it. But despite that I wouldn’t say television is bad – a good film, a good TV show is all about the story, and I’m really pleased that The Gruffalo’s Child is on TV.”
So will Donaldson herself be settling down to watch Helena Bonham Carter’s deliciously sinister Mother Squirrel narrating the snowy tale on Christmas Day? “In our family we always had a rule that we never watched television on Christmas Day, we played parlour games, and I made my children do it as well, and now they’ve got their own little ones.” (Her grandchildren are five weeks and 18 months old.) “But I will make an exception this year for The Gruffalo’s Child. She’s actually one of my favourites of my own characters because she is quite scared, but very brave too.”
The Gruffalo's Child is on BBC One on Christmas Day at 6.30pm