Julia Donaldson has given the world some of its best-loved and most recognisable children’s books, from The Gruffalo to Room On The Broom.
Her creations – especially those illustrated by Axel Scheffler – have also found life beyond the page, being turned into hugely popular films and family-friendly stage productions.
The latest to grace theatres, including His Majesty’s next week, is Zog, Julia’s charming yarn of a kind and clumsy dragon who tries so hard – perhaps too hard – to win a golden star at Madame Dragon’s school.
Julia, who was the Children’s Laureate from 2011 to 2013, said: “I’m tremendously excited that Zog will be taking flight around the UK in this first ever stage production.
“Going to the theatre can be a truly magical experience, I know it will be such a thrill to see the world of Zog being brought to life on stage.”
The author, who also created Stick Man and Tabby McTat, is a huge fan of kids experiencing the magic of theatre at an early age.
“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” she said.
“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.”
Which is why the writer has few qualms about seeing her creations adapted into stage or film versions – such as the TV adaptation of Zog which was a Christmas time family viewing hit.
“Handing it over to a theatre or film companies you know it’s going to change, but you have to let it go,” said Julia.
“With things like voices and characters, I can’t actually think of a time where I felt they got it wrong on stage. And with film companies, they usually consult me and tell me what they’ve got in mind.”
She likens that collaboration to her work with illustrator Axel.
“It’s always through the editor – I never exchange a word with Axel about the pictures when we’re putting a book together. Axel probably wouldn’t even know that I was writing something until my editor shows it to him – 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’. And then Axel will get to work seriously and I’ll see it at a later stage, when there will still be a few little tweaks.”
There are of course times when the characters she has visualised in her head while writing are different to what the illustrator creates.
“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,” said Julia. “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.”
Having written almost 200 books, Julia always develops the storyline in her head before she starts writing as opposed to some authors who make it up as they go along.
“I always think you wouldn’t start telling a joke if you didn’t know what the punchline was.”
And she admits that Zog was rather unusual for her – as she didn’t come up with the initial idea. Rather it was her editor who said it would be nice to have a story about a dragon.
Julia said: “I started thinking about it and the name ‘Madame Dragon’ came into my head, which I thought had a nice sound.
“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.”
And for Julia, a happy ending to her stories is always crucial. She said: “I often think about the role of storytelling for young people. In life, not everything does have a happy ending – but I think storytelling is probably very important because to grow up with stories helps you have aspirations, even if life doesn’t turn out like that.
“Even as grown-ups, we know that there is a lot of sadness in life, but I think if we didn’t have those stories, aspirations and a sense of what’s ideal, life would be much harder to live.”
It is clear Julia puts a lot of thought into her work but what does she think is the appeal behind her books?
“I don’t know for sure, but I think there are three main things: the storyline – it’s really important to have a well-crafted story; the language; and the illustration – and I do have to give a lot of credit to the illustrators. I think it’s a combination of those three things done well.”
Zog is at His Majesty’s Theatre from Monday to Wednesday next week.