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Julia Donaldson webchat

Julia Donaldson is one of the UK’s most popular children’s authors. She started her career writing songs for children’s television, then in 1993, one of her songs was made into a book. She is probably best known for her partnership with Axel Scheffler, illustrator of best-selling book The Gruffalo, amongst many others.

In 2011 Julia was announced as the Children’s Laureate, for a term of two years, and was awarded an MBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours. 

Q: How did your collaboration with Axel Scheffler come about? artygran

A: The publisher of our first book, "A Squash and a Squeeze", put Axel and me together. Actually he was the third illustrator they approached! I'm so glad now that the other two couldn't do it as I think he's brilliant.

Q: I have often wondered when reading the books whether the idea for the story comes first and the rhyme round it - or whether you begin with the rhyme and sees where it takes you? rosiemus

A: What a lovely question! The story comes first, absolutely. I only get my notebook out once I've completely worked out all the twists and turns.

Q: I know you have said that you are very concerned about library closures. I am currently campaigning to save the Upper Norwood Joint Library in Crystal Palace, London, SE19. How important do you think libraries are for our children? Would you be able to help us in some way with our campaign? mjhubba

A: I think libraries are vital for children. Where else do you get all that choice? And the books are free! Plus there are great Rhyme Time sessions. I'm lobbying MPs and going to do a big libraries tour. It's a bit harder for me to get involved in every individual campaign, I'm afraid.

Q: I would like to know more about your new Goat Goes To Playgroup book. Did you write it because of a personal experience - or was it something you were approached to do? jakesgran

A: I wanted to write an animals book for the wonderful Nick Sharratt to illustrate and I was trying to think of a setting, when suddenly "playgroup" sprang to mind. Poor Goat is a bit dyspraxic but very lovable. I hope the book will be a good introduction to playgroup.

Q: Did you always want to be a writer? And did you always want to write for children? baggage

A: When I was five my dad gave me a poetry book and I decided then and there that I wanted to be a poet! But I had many other aspirations between then and now, including a desire to go on the stage.

Q: I would love to know out of all your books which is your favourite? northerngran

A: I have a weakness for The Snail and the Whale, but the book I'm proudest of is my novel for teenagers, Running on the Cracks.

Q: Do you know what your characters look like before they are drawn? So often the illustrations seem perfect. Do you give very detailed briefs? peekaboo

A: I do usually have an idea in my head, but the illustrator's interpretation is almost always quite different! However, I try not to interfere too much, since the illustrator isn't breathing down my neck when I do the writing part!

Q: Where did the idea for the Gruffalo spring from? Did you think up the whole story at the start or did it emerge as you went along? hummingbird

A: The Gruffalo was going to be about a tiger, but I couldn't fit a tiger into my rhyme scheme. I more or less thought of the whole story before I started writing, but the bits about roasted fox etc were added in a second draft.

Q: At bedtime last night my granddaughter chose Zog. I applaud the girl wanting to be a doctor rather than wear a frilly dress especially in this age of Barbie hype for pink and frilly - was this intentional? glassortwo

A: I'm glad you like the feminist aspect of Zog! Though actually Princess Pearl's ambition to be a doctor sprang, I think, from my husband's profession (he works in a children's hospital).

Q:  We have loved the films of The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child and are hoping there are more in the pipeline. Are there? And if so what's next? CariGransnet

A: There is going to be an animation of Room on the Broom next Christmas. I've seen the progress so far and I think it'll be wonderful.

Q: It seems to me that rhyme is absolutely brilliant for maintaining interest in books for adults. I have noticed that the books I've most enjoyed reading to my children and grandchildren have been rhyming ones. Was that thought at the back of your mind? sofasogood

A: The reason I so often write in rhyme is that I was a songwriter long before I turned my hand to children's books. The songs were almost always rhyming ones, so it came naturally to me. I agree that rhyming books are more memorable, but sometimes it's not appropriate. A few of my books, such as The Troll and The Princess and The Wizard don't rhyme, but there's usually some element of pattern in them all.

Q: Not really a question but I just had to take the opportunity to thank you Julia for all the pleasure you give to us children's book lovers. Your skill with rhyme is amazing. I'm sure that you must actually think in rhyme, as you make it seem so effortless. pinkhater

A: Thank you. It's so lovely to be appreciated! Thank you. Actually the rhyming isn't effortless - it's quite hard work getting it to scan properly. I could probably burst into rhyme on the spur of the moment but it wouldn't be very classy rhyme!

Q: I know you play the guitar but wondered whether you write the music for the songs yourself as well as the words? kittyp

A: Yes, I do write the tunes as well as the words. But my husband plays the guitar much better than me and when we do stage shows he always accompanies me. I'm thrilled now that the publishers have allowed me to produce three books of my songs, which all come with CDs - and the best bit of all is that I got proper musicians to play, as I really don't like synthesised music. The latest of these books is called The Gruffalo's Child and Other Songs and it contains nine songs.

Q: Is there a tune or rhythm you would recommend for the song in The Smartest Giant? We're new to it and I can't figure out one that works. ThisIsNotWhatIWas

A: Yes, there is a Smartest Giant tune! (But you're very welcome to make up your own.) You can hear my tune on the audio version, or better still in the song book called Room on the Broom and Other Songs.

Q: I grew up in a council house in a very deprived area, in a household which would now be termed as "underclass". Books were my salvation.The characters in the books I read were all middle class and their lives had no similarity to mine. I know that one of my heroes, Bob Holman, who you no doubt met when you were writer in residence at Easterhouse, has expressed the hope that you "will now write stories which depict the courage and positive attributes of children in places like Easterhouse". Have you written/do you plan to write stories like this? grannyactivist

A: Please give my regards to the wonderful Bob Holman. My three years in Easterhouse were among the most worthwhile ones of my life, specially the adult writers' group which I set up and which is still going. However, ideas for books don't usually come from me thinking, "what can I do to improve the lot of a specific group of people?". Actually I think that if the hero is an animal that is often quite universal and could apply to any child, rich or poor. I certainly don't write about rich children!

Q: I'd like to know what books you read as a child. Have you been inspired or influenced by any other children's writers? Nsube

A: One of my favourite authors was Richmal Crompton who wrote the William books. I think I modelled myself on 11-year-old William - especially the eloquent way he argued with his parents! In one book, when his mother asks why he wears his socks out so quickly he replies that it's because his brain is too heavy from having to go to school, and argues that she should stop sending him there.

Q: When did you start writing? I only became aware of your books about 10 years ago, but you seem to have written so many. Are you very prolific? Or was I just slow catching on?! scribblegranny

A: I wrote songs for about 20 years before my first book was published. That was in 1993. It's true I've written a lot, but most of them are quite short! (Though I have written some books for older children, such as The Giants and the Joneses.) So glad you enjoy the books.

Q: How did you find the experience of making the TV adaption of The Gruffalo? cm22v077

A: The film company were a joy to work with, being very respectful to my wishes and to those of Axel Scheffler, the illustrator. I think the casting was excellent - especially the voice of Helena Bonham-Carter as narrator. She sounds slightly sinister, which I think is much better than being all hearty and Joyce Grenfell-like.

Q: Are you enjoying being the Children's Laureate? What does it entail and did you have any qualms about accepting? torridtimes

A: Yes, I'm really enjoying my new(ish) role, though it's very full-on! I knew it would be a lot of work so I didn't really have any qualms. The job entails being a spokesperson for the world of children's books, plus each Laureate brings something of his or her self to the job. In my case, my "Big Things" are my passion for drama and music, my enthusiasm for libraries, and also my interest in signed stories for deaf children. You can find out more on the laureate website.

Q: Do you have to be very disciplined with your writing, or do you just write when the fancy takes you? swizzle

A: I'm afraid I'm not a creature of routine, so I tend to write when I have a good idea, and then there is no stopping me. Otherwise I can go for weeks without writing - though I am always involved in the books as I do a lot of stage shows based on them, at book festivals and in theatres. In fact, I think I spend more of my time devising these shows than actually writing - and I have a room full of props in my house.

Q: Do you have to keep in touch with children to be a children's author? Or does your sense of what excites children come from inside you and your own childhood? cheeriblegran

A: Interesting questions! I do see a lot of children as I do so many library visits. And I now have two small grandchildren of my own, one of whom has given me an idea for a baby book. But mainly I think the ideas come, as you suggest, from my imagination and my own childhood.

Q: Do children's writers get treated as not-proper writers? Does anyone ever ask you if you're going to write a "proper" book for grownups? personals

A: I know what you mean. There's a very funny Posy Simmonds cartoon on that subject. But actually I can't say (thankfully) that I've had that experience. This may be because so many of my books ARE read by adults, at bedtime with their children. It does annoy me when "adult" writers and celebs think it would be easy to write a children's book, because it certainly isn't!

Q: We love A Squash and a Squeeze - I have heard the story is loosely based on an old parable (certainly the old man does look vaguely rabbinical). Is that just a myth or is it true? jakesgran

A: You're absolutely right. A Squash and a Squeeze is based on an old folk tale. I wrote it as a song for a children's television programme years and years before it was turned into a book. Someone told me the traditional story but I didn't know then that it was a Jewish one or I probably wouldn't have included a pig!

Julia DonaldsonQ: I wondered what writers do you like to read? And have you been influenced by other authors, either for children or adults? Iwasframed

A: Some of my favourite novelists (for adults) are Rose Tremain, Ian McEwan and Ruth Rendell. One of my all-time favourite children's writers is Arnold Lobel who wrote the Frog and Toad books. His fable-like writing probably has been an influence. So has Edward Lear - my granny used to read me his poems when I was very little.

Q: Do you have a date for your tour? And where do we find out about what and when you are lobbying? mjhubba

A: The tour dates aren't firmly fixed yet but it will be in September and October (2012) (plus I'm visiting other libraries in the meantime). It's quite hard to find time to keep posting everything I'm doing, especially as I'm not a natural blogger, but the laureate website does report on some of my activities. This month I have been to see Ed Vaizey the libraries minister, and also Ed Miliband.

Q: Are there any of your books that you think has been underrated, or overlooked? panther

A: I always wish my three Princess Mirror-Belle books were better known. There are three chapter books about her. She's a naughty boastful reflection who comes out of the mirror and gets the real-life girl into all sorts of mischief. Another - younger - book I'm really keen on is One Ted Falls Out of Bed, with beautiful soft illustrations by Anna Currey. It's a kind of counting adventure set in a night-time bedroom.

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Q: Just for fun, could you finish off this rhyme? Little boy Benny visited the Upper Norwood Joint Library/He looked around and he laughed with glee/So many books and CDs too/... mjhubba

A: I think you should ask Benny to supply the fourth line! 

Q: Do you worry that as they get older and have to make the transition from being-read-to to reading for themselves, it's difficult to keep them interested? Have you any tips for encouraging children to read for themselves? hexagran

A: My main tip for encouraging children to read for themselves would be to take them to the library. Also, don't discourage them from re-visiting their favourite picture books. And keep reading to them at bedtime! If you read the first chapter they may be keen to carry on by themselves. (But it's important not to pressurise them.)

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