An English writer, playwright and performer, Julia Donaldson’s career in writing books for children came about through sheer happenstance. While studying Drama and French at the University, she started busking in the street and singing in folk clubs with her soon-to-be husband Malcolm, mainly for an adult audience. However, she found that there was more appetite for children’s songs, especially on television. When one of her BBC songs, “A Squash and a Squeeze,” was made into a book, she began on the children’ book path.

Julia, who is currently on a tour in India, remembers growing up in a tall house in Hampstead with her grandmother, aunt, uncle, mother, father, sister Mary and cat Geoffrey. Storytelling was an important part of her childhood. Her parents and granny used to read to her and give her books of fairy stories for birthdays. She still has a favourite book from when she was five, The Book of A Thousand Poems given to her by her father. She used to recite them, and soon enough, started making up some of her own.

“Each story grew from a different spark.” 

She says the ideas for her books come from everywhere – “When I’m out walking, swimming or, often, in the bath. Each story grew from a different spark. For instance, my latest book with Axel Scheffler, The Ugly Five, was inspired by my first South African safari. I was introduced to the beautiful ‘Big Five’ creatures but was much more intrigued by the so-called ‘Ugly Five’ (the Wildebeest, Hyena, Warthog, Lappet-Faced Vulture and Marabou Stork). On a completely different note – The Highway Rat was inspired by a poem, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, which I loved when I was a schoolgirl.”

Picture Credit: Julia Donaldson

Children in today’s age are quite attached to their computers and smartphones, how does she think books can help them tap into their imagination when reading may not be their first choice of recreation? But Julia, best known for her books like The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man, feels that the appetite for a good book hasn’t really declined.

Picture Credit: Julia Donaldson

She adds, “Look at how popular the Harry Potter books are. But I think perhaps that adults should be careful about their own use of computers and smartphones: they are perhaps worse culprits than children and could set a better example!”

“Books can often help children understand their own feelings and can also help them sympathise with different points of view.”

Julia adds that if children had no books all they would know about would be their own experience: “a town child wouldn’t know about the countryside and vice versa, and children wouldn’t know about all the different animals in the world. Books can often help children understand their own feelings and can also help them sympathise with different points of view.”

This is the author’s second trip to India well after a decade – she is looking forward to exploring more of the country and to meeting many more young readers – “It has been great revisiting New Delhi and then taking part in the Kolkata and Jaipur book festivals. Now I’m looking forward to Mumbai, especially to performing at the Royal Opera House! But after that, I think I’ll be glad of the holiday which my husband and I have booked in Kerala.”

“My editor tells me she often gets quite good submissions from would-be writers which are then let down by a lame or too predictable ending.”

Her one word of advice for anyone who wants to write for children is to think about the ending of their story, “My editor tells me she often gets quite good submissions from would-be writers which are then let down by a lame or too predictable ending.”

Julia informs that as soon as she gets home from India she’s going to start work on a show which she’ll be performing (25 times!) at the Edinburgh Festival. Her team will have a professional director, designer and composer, “which I know will be stimulating, and the show will contain some of my favourite stories, including “Room on the Broom” and a new one – not out yet – called “The Cook and the King”. Then in May it’s off to Croatia for the Zagreb Book Festival.”

The author asserts that she doesn’t really plan for the distant future, “Life can be so precarious that I don’t think there’s much point planning too far ahead.”

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