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Monsters! A love story

When you’re scared of what will happen next, follow Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson’s advice: head straight into that deep, dark wood

brunch Updated: Feb 24, 2018 20:52 IST
Zuni Chopra
Zuni Chopra
Hindustan Times
Julia Donaldson,Gruffalo,#BrunchBookChallenge
Julia Donaldson is the author of some of the most incredible and beloved children’s books(Getty images)

“Mom,” I whisper, a sudden flush of excitement rising in me, “There’s a monster under my bed!”

She smiles, humouring me. She knows of the magic and monsters my childhood can conjure within our little world. “Oh, really? And what does he look like?”

“It’s a creature with terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws! His eyes are all orange, his tongue is black, and he has...um....” It is here that my memory seems to smudge, and my mother pounces.

“Is it... the Gruffalo?” she bursts out, tickling me all over until I snort with laughter.

What you fear...

Ten years later, I wipe my sweaty palms on the only pair of nice jeans I can find in my closet and prepare to interview the woman who gave life to my dreams. Julia Donaldson, author of some of the most incredible and beloved children’s books, is waiting for my ‘unique and interesting questions’. With a final deep breath that does nothing to calm me, I head inside. I’m greeted with warm welcomes from her. After a chorus of polite and enthusiastic hellos, I take my seat and pull out my weathered sheet of paper. But I soon realise that, much like the Gruffalo himself, it’s impossible to be truly scared of her. Her eyes so gentle, her voice calmer than the sea on a summer morning and her words so filled with sugar, that my tense shoulders finally begin to relax.

“I think fascination for monsters just comes from innate fear”

“So,” I start, “I guess my first question would have to be... when did you decide to become a children’s book author, and why did you want to write for children?”

She pauses at this, gazing a long way off. “Well, it wasn’t really something I decided. It just happened! I mean, when I was five, I wanted to be a poet. But then I ended up writing songs... and my children’s songs sold better on children’s television...and then those songs got turned into books, and it just sort of became a career writing for children,” she smiles.

I nod enthusiastically. It just goes to show, I think to myself, the best choices in life aren’t made; they happen! I steer the interview to more familiar terrain: “The Gruffalo in particular was something that struck a chord with me, because I loved the book as a child! So...even though the Gruffalo is a monster, he fascinates children and makes them laugh. What do you think makes monsters such a source of wonder for children, and so loveable rather than scary?”

“I think fascination for monsters just comes from innate fear! I think all children – my children loved the Troll and the Billy Goats Gruff, my sister thought there were wolves living in her bedroom, so you know it’s natural. But the thing is, the Gruffalo...when he says things like ‘amazing,’ or ‘astounding,’ he seems quite foolish, and becomes loveable!”

So, she says, it comes from a captivation of what we fear. Perhaps it’s the same with adults?“And the woods?” I continue. “What makes the woods such a place of magic and wonder?”

She gives a slight laugh, replying “Well...again I think the woods are a little scary, with shadows, and branches, and weird faces in the trees...you never who you’re going to meet in the woods! In fact, when I wrote it, I said ‘I don’t want there to be a lot of pine trees and the illustrator took notes and made it all spooky with the silver birch trees, like a typical German forest!”

And what you hear…

My next question, I hope, will bust some myths about the writing process.

“A lot of people think that not a lot of effort goes into writing for children because the text itself is so little, which of course isn’t true. So what’s the hardest part about writing for children? Where does most of your time and energy go?”

She replies instantly, “Most of it is actually devising the story. It’s easy to get an initial idea, thinking ‘Oh! I’ll write a book about such-and-such character,’ but to sit and write out the plot takes a great deal more work than one would imagine. And a lot of my books rhyme, which is hard work as well!”

“So what differentiates a good children’s book from a great one? Is it the plot?”

“Well, I suppose for any book to be great, it’d have to be good in a lot of different ways... you could have a book that’s quite a sweet story, but it only appeals to young children...for it to be truly wonderful, it needs to appeal to both children and the parents, pictures would have to be excellent, the language has to have some universal appeal!”

“Right – something that stays with people!” I nod. “What, then, is the importance of telling stories?”

Her next answer surprises me: “You know I’m not really so keen on the word ‘important’. I always get asked why it’s ‘important’ for children to read. One never asks why it’s ‘important’ for them to watch films or television, or ‘important’ for them to play games; it’s just natural, enjoyable! But, having said that, obviously without stories, and without seeing other people’s lives, the children are going to grow up in their little world; if they’re in a village, they’ll think the whole world is a village, and never learn about other places and cultures and people and animals. I think books have an amazing capacity to help us understand ourselves better as well! Like my oldest child, if he fell over he’d say ‘A bit like Humpty Dumpty!’ or ‘A bit like Jack and Jill!’ because he’d heard those nursery rhymes and he could identify with them, so sometimes it helps you understand yourself, and it helps you understand people who are not like you.”

“Do you ever feel the weight of responsibility as a children’s book author? I mean, you’re potentially shaping their values and viewpoints for a lifetime!”

“I let my editor worry about that. Sometimes my illustrator is a bit naughty and puts one or two things in the pictures that we have to rub out! Besides, most children’s stories would have good values and happy endings anyway. I don’t think any books would say things like ‘be very bad’!”

…can often become very dear

The freedom of her spirit is what strikes me here. It’s almost reflective of the children she writes for. “So what’s one moment when a child has taught you something about your book or your story that you didn’t know?” I ask.

“Sometimes they tell me silly things! They’ll say they like my book since it has a lot of descriptive words, and it doesn’t really, it’s just a phrase they’ve picked up in English class. Once or twice they’ve pointed out mistakes in my book that I’ve had to change, or noticed things in the pictures that I’d never seen before. They ask all kinds of questions – my favourite is, “Where is the Gruffalo’s mum now?” I normally say she’s on vacation in the Caribbean or something, but Axel [the illustrator] replies they’re divorced!”

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” I say, “but I find that often in this country when we say we want to be writers at the age of 16, we’re not really taken seriously.”

“Really? I’m surprised...all these amazing writers here, and these literature festivals, I’d think...”

“Oh definitely there’s a great love for books! It’s just that at my age when you say you want to write, it isn’t something that people regard with too much respect. What would your message be to aspiring writers?”

“I think I’d say that if you want to write, that’s lovely anyway! There’s a lot of opportunities nowadays for writers: blogs, online magazines, diaries, letters, poems, writer’s groups and book clubs, so there’s a lot of things you can do with your writing even if you don’t get a book published. Even if something gets rejected, you can still send it somewhere else or change it into a song or a play or a poem. The Gruffalo started as a play, and evolved into a book. That’s the nice thing about ideas – they can be recycled! So, there’s a lot of hope for young writers!”

So, the next time you feel that little tingle in your heart, telling you to write and wonder and follow the Gruffalo into the deep dark wood...listen!

Author bio: Zuni is the daughter of filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and film critic Anupama Chopra. She debuted as a novelist with The House That Spoke and has also penned two poetry books.

From HT Brunch, February 25, 2018

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First Published: Feb 24, 2018 20:52 IST