An Interview with Julia Donaldson
The world renowned children’s author Julia Donaldson talks Zog and the Flying Doctors, and seeing her books adapted for the stage…
Best known for her popular rhyming stories for children, especially those illustrated by Axel Scheffler, Julia Donaldson is the multi award-winning author of some of the world’s best loved children’s books, most notably the modern classic The Gruffalo which has sold over 18 million copies worldwide.
Many of Julia and Axel’s books have made the journey from page to stage, and this year the bestselling Zog and the Flying Doctors joins them. This is the follow-up to Freckle Productions’ smash-hit adaptation of Zog, the origin story about the eponymous dragon. The sequel follows Zog and his Flying Doctor crew, Princess Pearl and Sir Gadabout, as they tend to a sunburnt mermaid, a unicorn with one too many horns and a lion with the flu.
Zog and the Flying Doctors flies into York Theatre Royal on 24 and 25 June as part of its world premiere tour. But where did the idea for Zog come from? “Well that one was quite unusual”, Julia says, “in that the initial idea didn’t come from me. My editor said to me ‘it would be lovely to have a story about a dragon’, so I started thinking about it and the name ‘Madam Dragon’ came into my head, which I thought had a nice sound.
“A nail-biting moment”
“And then I thought what could Madame Dragon do, who could she be? I came up with various ideas and a schoolteacher was one of them, so I took it from there. Originally it was going to be about a knight and a dragon, but it ended up being about a Princess and a dragon – the story came to me bit by bit.
“My husband Malcolm, who is a doctor, also had some input here. Because when I was planning the story, I knew that Zog would keep meeting the Princess, and originally I was going to have them play together and toast marshmallows. And Malcolm said that’s a bit soppy, couldn’t it be something with a bit more oomph? And then I came up with the doctor angle”.
Of course Zog is not the first animal to star in one of Julia’s stories. From a cat in Tabby McTat to a fish in Tiddler and to the now-iconic Gruffalo, animals are often Julia’s most memorable creations.
“It’s often used as a convention – like in Aesop’s Fables, where the animals aren’t really animals, they represent a quality or a characteristic. I also think it would be far more boring for the reader if Mouse in The Gruffalo was just a small but clever person, or the Gruffalo itself was a big, scary but rather stupid person. Or in The Snail and the Whale, if the Whale was just a big person and the snail a little person – I think you need animals to represent the qualities”.
One facet of the enduring success of Julia’s stories is her partnership with illustrator Axel Scheffler who has brought so many of her characters to life. So how does this collaboration work? “It’s always through the editor”, Julia explains.
“I never exchange a word with Axel about the pictures until my editor shows him the book – and then I have a nail-biting moment wondering if he likes it and wants to do it. Then he’ll do some character sketches which I’ll look at. Sometimes, after he’s created sketches for every picture, I’ll think ‘oh hang on, I’m going to change that little bit of text, because I like what he’s done with that’”.
Having had the characters in her head for so long, what’s it like if the illustrations are different to what she imagined? “I always say it’s like going on holiday – you’ve got an idea in your head of how it’s going to be, and then it’s always totally different. But once you’re there and enjoying it, you just forget what was in your head before.
“Also, I usually know when I’m writing something whether I want Axel to work on it – in which case I’ve got his style in my head as I’m working. It doesn’t influence the storyline, but it will influence how I picture the characters. So I’m usually not surprised when I see Axel’s interpretation.”
Many of Julia’s books have now been adapted for film or theatre where they are reimagined all over again. “For me, it’s like an extension of working with an illustrator. Handing it over to a theatre company or film company you know it’s going to change a bit; the end product will be a blend of my words and their artistic vision. And they do usually consult me and tell me what they’ve got in mind.”
The stage adaptations of Julia and Axel’s books, from Zog to Stick Man, are often a child’s first time experiencing live theatre, something Julia clearly takes pleasure in. “I remember going to see The Nutcracker when I was a child and I found the whole thing completely magical. I can still remember how I felt when the curtain went up. I suppose in a way it’s the same thing that a book gives you, in that while you’re reading or watching, you believe in a different reality. And if it’s a good show, parents love to see that their children – even very young ones – can just be transfixed by it.”
‘Zog and the Flying Doctors’ plays at York Theatre Royal on 24 and 25 June.
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