Thursday, 12 February 2015

St Peter and the Gruffalo

The only thing I knew about Julia Donaldson before going along to her talk at St Peter's last night was that she had written The Gruffalo and a slew of other appealing picture books, many illustrated by the same person (Axel Scheffler).

I didn't know that her writing career grew out of her songwriting career, or that in their younger days, she and her husband Malcolm (then a medical student, now a doctor) went busking all around England and Europe.

I've since read more about her life, including the sad and moving story of their oldest son, a much-loved but obviously challenging and difficult child.

I didn't expect the talk at St Peter's was going to be such an interactive performance, so hats off to the four audience members who so bravely volunteered (or were volunteered...) as hen, goat, pig and cow for the retelling in song of Julia's first picture book A squash and a squeeze.

Julia and Malcolm had already put on a musical show for 250 children in the morning, in the same venue, and I doubt that St Peter's will ever again witness anything to match the hilarious sight of Malcolm (as Gruffalo-fox-owl-snake) chasing Julia (as the little mouse) up and down the aisles.
(You can see a video clip of the two of them in action here.)

Introduced by John McIntyre from The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, and chaired by Wellington picture writer and illustrator Ruth Paul, the rest of the session covered Julia's introduction to the world of picture books and educational publishing and how the story of The Gruffalo developed. She and Ruth also talked about the relationship between author and illustrator, especially in the mind of the public (in Germany, Julia noted, Axel's name always appears first on the cover) and her work as Children's Laureate in England, particularly her support for public libraries.

There was time for a few questions from the audience - a good one about "how do you know if an idea for a picture book is worth pursuing?" - before Julia and Malcolm performed their Gruffalo act, and two people from Huia Publishers read us the first few pages of The Gruffalo (Te Tanguruhau) in te reo Maori, one of 57 languages it has been translated into.

I had an interesting chat with the lovely Huia ladies afterwards and was intrigued to learn more about how Brian Morris went about translating the text (in fact there's a Booknotes interview with him here). Julia and Malcolm were obviously charmed by the reading and also delighted to be here soon after the appearance of Monkey puzzle in te reo (Kei hea taku mama?), also published by Huia.

You can find some lovely photos of Julia here, including one of her and Malcolm busking in Bristol.

 Julia Donaldson images:  Julia and Malcolm Busking in Bristol

Thursday night was gridlock night in Wellington traffic, so if you were aiming to come along and missed it, or got there late, you can also hear Julia talking to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon.

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