Julia Donaldson sells a book roughly every 11 seconds. The Gruffalo; Stick Man; Room on the Broom; The Snail and the Whale; Zog and the Flying Doctors – if your home has ever had young children in it, chances are you have a few of those on the shelves. Her hit book The Gruffalo – about a mouse who scares off predators in a wood – has sold over 13 million copies alone and has been translated into more than 100 languages. She has an estimated net worth of £85m. The key to her success? “Good rhymes, good story, great pictures, bit scary,” says Donaldson, concentrating hard to get it in the right order; it’s an eight-word answer she has had memorised for a while now.
Donaldson is the queen of picture books with good reason: children never tire of her visually sumptuous, poetic and funny stories. I’m a witness to their appeal. To my own kids, who love her lift-the-flap books, nothing is quite as exciting at bedtime as the grand finale of Postman Bear; they open the big brown cardboard door, and mole, frog and squirrel are standing there with presents for Bear’s party.
But the biggest-selling author of the past decade – in any genre – didn’t expect such major success when she wrote her second picture book, The Gruffalo, in 1999. “I very much doubted that it would get accepted, let alone feted,” says the 72-year-old, talking via Zoom from her home in a small West Sussex town, where she now owns the post office. “It wasn’t very typical of what picture books were like in those days.” Books like Guess How Much I Love You were prevalent in the Nineties, and they were “more reassuring to parents, I think, than to children”, says Donaldson. “There weren’t a lot of rhyming books – or adventure story books – then.”
What set The Gruffalo apart – aside from its lyrical quality – was how it took children out of their comfort zone. The story was funny, but it was fearsome, too. In it, a mouse craftily fends off a fox, an owl and a snake by telling them he’s meeting a gruffalo. He thinks there’s no such thing – until he meets a real one. “But who is this creature with terrible claws / And terrible teeth in his terrible jaws? / He has knobbly knees, and turned-out toes / And a poisonous wart at the end of his nose.”
This wasn’t just another warm family story with a lovey-dovey message – this was an adventure story that rhymed. The mouse’s journey is an odyssey in the most ancient of traditions.
Donaldson’s first hint of success came when The Gruffalo was lined up to be translated into 12 languages before it was even published. When the book came out, she was on her way to Venice. “We were in the airport and I said to Malcolm, ‘Oh let’s find a paper just in case there is a review.’ And there was a huge picture of The Gruffalo saying it was ‘a modern classic’. And I just floated about. I was on cloud nine.”
Since then, Donaldson has made it her life’s mission to connect with children – so it’s not surprising she’s so concerned about the pandemic’s effect on them. She worries that it’s harder for them to read facial expressions with masks on, and that many schools banned singing in class – “which seems unnatural”.
“I found the masks very worrying – the sort of psychological effect on some children at school,” says Donaldson. “And I think the sooner we can be mask-free, the better.”
Dressed in a red flowery dress, with shoulder-length hair, Donaldson has an almost childlike openness to her. “It’s very hard to say this with all the social media stuff,” she continues. “Certain views, you just get branded as a Trump supporter or something. But I don’t feel there has been enough weighing up of the risks and benefits. I’m not saying that the lockdown or closing schools is wrong, but I think we probably need to wait before having a big, huge inquiry. We need to see what the effects have been before we say, ‘Yes, we were right to do it this way,’ or ‘We should have done it another way’. We are still too in it.”
Although Donaldson complains that local children wave at her through her low windows – “It can be intrusive” – there’s certainly a homely vibe in her study. Her husband, Malcolm – a retired consultant paediatrician – keeps wandering into the room wearing a Gruffalo tour T-shirt; he’s about to do a Zoom piano lesson.
The pair will have been married for 50 years next year. She met the then medical student in 1969 at Bristol University, where she studied drama and French. Soon they were busking together across Europe. He played guitar and Donaldson sang.
Now, as a superstar kids’ author, she gets asked her opinions regularly – which baffles her. “I suppose if you choose to express an opinion that’s one thing,” she says. “But there’s no reason why somebody who is successful in one field should be an authority on this, that and the other. I’m not really an authority on anything other than picture-book writing.”
I ask her what she makes of celebrities who write children’s books – such as Meghan Markle, whose book The Bench is out this month. “However much of a fuss there is, unless it’s good, it won’t work,” she says. “In the end, you can have as big a PR campaign as you want and if the public doesn’t really take to the book, it will all die down quite soon.” But it depends who the celebrity is. “David Walliams, he was already a writer because he’d written all the sketches for Little Britain. So he was a writer – he wasn’t just a celebrity.”
Donaldson, who had to pause her popular live shows during the pandemic, is disarmingly eccentric. She put on a series of live-streamed events with Malcolm over lockdown, performing her picture books dressed up in full costume. She says the pandemic increased “the divide between children from high-achieving, motivated families – whose parents might help them with their home learning – and those without a book in the house”.
But it’s nature that concerns her more than literacy. “I think it’s one thing to say, ‘We want to save the planet.’ I feel that you need to know the planet. Not everything about it, but what’s on your doorstep at least. Be able to touch the flowers and know their names.”