Gruffalo creator comes to Derry

The Gruffalo - one of Julia's best known and best loved characters.
The Gruffalo - one of Julia's best known and best loved characters.

Julia Donaldson is a phenomenon in her own right. Having penned in excess of 160 books, written plays and songs and taken the world by her storm thanks to tale of a deep dark wood, a small mouse and a fearsome some creature called The Gruffalo, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Julia Donaldson is a phenomenon in her own right. Having penned in excess of 160 books, written plays and songs and taken the world by her storm thanks to tale of a deep dark wood, a small mouse and a fearsome some creature called The Gruffalo, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson.

Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson.

And she is bringing her infectious love of books, acting, singing and promoting the imagination of children to Derry later this month - all thanks to local publishing house Dog Ears.

Her show at the Millennium Forum, which has already sold out, will allow the city’s youngest book lovers to interact with many of her well loved characters. There will be story telling, play-acting, a little bit of singing and even an appearance by the Gruffalo himself.

“The show is more than an ordinary author talk,” Julia said. “It’s more a proper show - with seven different items and two or three actors helping bring it to life.”

Derry audiences will be treated to The Highway Rat, Freddie and the Fairy, A Squash and a Squeeze and, of course the Gruffalo.

While some of the stories will simply be read or played out on stage, others will require the involvement of willing children who will get a chance to take on the roles of some of their favourite characters and help bring the entire experience to life in an unforgettable way.

There will be songs to be sung, from Julia’s latest collection of music ‘The Gruffalo’s Child and Other Songs’ and all participants will have the chance to sing along.

Julia, who currently holds the title of UK Children’s Laureate, believes in the power of harnessing a child’s imagination to foster in them a great love of books.

“Children are natural actors and actresses. They love role play and they have amazing imaginations. From a very early age they are acting things out with their dolls and teddies. Playing is also about creating small little plays - and it is very natural for a child to behave in this way.

“Promoting that builds their confidence and gives them a moment when they are the centre of attention.

“I tend to think bringing books to life in this way - acting them out and holding events such as these - can often introduce children to books, perhaps when books aren’t as prominent in homes as they used to be.”

Taking a more animated approach to writing, promoting and performing her tales is something which has come easily to Julia. In her younger days she and husband Malcolm used to go busking and often made up songs. When one of these songs ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ - which will be performed at the Millennium Forum - was made into a book in 1993 things took off from there. And Julia’s natural love and talent for performing has followed ever since.

It was 1999 before The Gruffalo hit the shelves - and Julia wasn’t sure how it would be received at all.

“At the time a lot of the books around were fluffy and lovely and we didn’t know people would react to a giant, fearsome Gruffalo.”

Julia admits that the idea for the book came from an old folk tale about a little girl who goes into a forest and faces a fearsome tiger - telling him that she is the Queen of the Jungle and he better not eat her.

“Originally the character was to be a tiger - but it was hard to find something to rhyme with that,” Julia laughed. “So I took the characters and changed them around. The little girl became the little mouse and the tiger became the Gruffalo.”

The name of the Gruffalo came from Julia’s imagination and his fearsome descriptions followed - all helped along by her trademark rhyming.

She said she could never have predicted just how the book would have taken off - and how it has become a staple in thousands of homes across the country.

“There is no way I expected things to have taken off the way they have,” Julia said humbly - and yet she is one of the country’s most prolific writers. She has penned more than 160 books - from the classic picture books such as ‘The Snail and the Whale’ and ‘Room on the Broom’ to a series of phonics books for schools under the ‘Songbird’ title.

Her latest project is to work on a series of plays for infants and pre-schoolers which she hopes to be able to launch in 2013.

As Children’s Laureate, a title she will hold until next year, she wants to promote reading as much as she can - and says that there is no real excuse for not reading to your child.

“The best way to encourage your child to read is simply to have books in the house - to show them how you read. Make a bedtime story part of your routine. Reading to your child is a very easy thing to do.

“When you come in from a long day at work and are tired, it’s easier to cuddle up on the sofa and read to your child than to run about trying to play with the Lego or whatever - when they are tired and cranky anyway!”

She also suggests making strong use of your local library - admitting as a child she used to love wiling away the hours in her local library.

“There are such a range of books in your libraries. You never know what your child might be interested in or what might spark their imagination. It may not be the books you have heard or brought home. Allowing them free run to choose what appeals to them may surprise you!”

Julia’s visit to Derry on January 21 has already been dubbed ‘Julia Donaldson Day’. It will kick-off with Julia opening a very special exhibition in Derry’s Central Library. ‘The Illustrators’ exhibition offers the opportunity to see original artwork by the world’s leading children’s book illustrators who have created the wonderful pictures in Julia’s books, including: Emily Gravett, Lydia Monks, David Roberts, Axel Scheffler, Nick Sharratt, Pam Smy, Joel Stewart and Charlotte Voake. As well as finished illustrations, the exhibition includes sketches, ideas and a unique display of illustrated envelopes by Axel Scheffler, who always decorates his letters with his distinctive illustrations whenever he writes to Julia. The exhibition will run throughout January.

The event in the Millennium Forum will take place in the afternoon and the day will round off with an informal ‘In-Conversation’ event between Julia Donaldson, UK Laureate, and Siobhan Parkinson, Laureate na nÓg

(Irish Laureate) discussing their Laureate roles.

This event is targeted at adults (not suitable for children) interested in Children’s literature, and will be hosted by Marie- Louise Muir in the Verbal Arts Centre. Dog Ears is proud to bring the two Laureates together to discuss the big issues surrounding children’s books and reading – from digital publishing to library cuts and the challenges the Laureates face in their mission.

Laura Campbell, Editorial Director of Dog Ears who have arranged the event said: “We’re delighted to welcome Julia Donaldson, Children’s Laureate, to Derry for a day of outstanding events. We’re excited to bring a real picture book hero to Derry to meet families in the city because there are so few opportunities for local children to see authors and illustrators of this calibre on their own doorstep.”