A boy took a stroll through a deep dark wood.
Bored, he said, ‘Mama do you think you could
Tell me a story, a good one, please.
About knights and dragons and a killer disease.’
‘I will of course, dear son,’ she said,
And pulled a new story straight out of her head.
Predictably, it came in rhyme
Image by image, one word at a time.
She was no poet, she would easy admit,
But she thought she did more than a fair job at it.
‘That was OK, mum,’ her critic agreed.
‘But it wasn’t as good as A Squash and a Squeeze.’
Ubiquitous children’s writer Julia Donaldson was in Dublin recently to promote her latest books, Princess Mirror-belle and the Dragon Pox, and The Flying Bath. Yes, Donaldson is so prolific, she releases books in pairs these days. As part of her promotional tour, she undertook a few book signing events and a public performance at The Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, which I brought my toddler – a big Donaldson fan – along to. Donaldson was joined on stage by her husband Malcolm and her publishing assistant. The stage was bare but for a long table laden with various props – animal hats and masks – and copies of the books that she would perform excerpts from over the next 40 minutes.
Given the extraordinary success of her books and their various commercial offshoots (films, plays, board games etc), the ramshackle shoddiness of the performance was practically charming, but there was a strange feeling of the hard sell alongside the am-dram atmosphere. When asked by a child what her favourite book was at the Q and A at the end, Donaldson replied that she found it difficult to choose between Princess Mirror-Belle and The Dragon Pox and The Flying Bath; when I asked her the same question later during an interview I was conducting for The Irish Times, she said, without apparent irony, “kids always ask me that, and I always say its easiest just to say ‘whatever book I am promoting at the time.'”
(You can read my interview here: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-julia-donaldson-roadshow-grit-a-guitar-and-a-gruffalo-1.1967824)
If you are reading this it is probably because you have at least one (but I am guessing many many more) of Donaldson’s books stacked beside your children’s beds. We do – 15 at last count – and some of them are, without doubt, future classics. The Gruffalo is an unavoidable bedtime tale for a reason. It combines humour, rhyme and a catchy refrain, with a satisfying narrative arc. It feeds on natural fears and dispels them with a clever trick. Room on the Broom, with its narrative buildup and repetition, is every bit as memorable. However, my two year old and I share a particular fondness for Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book (me for the metafictional aspects, him for the singsong prose of course, but also the spot-the-detail-repeated-between-the-pages thrill).
And yet. Donaldson has written more than 90 books for commercial publication, and many of them are not very good. Nearly all of them subscribe to the Donaldson formula of predictable rhyme. Rhyme is integral to the pleasure a child gets from reading in their early years, and it is a brilliant tool for developing literacy skills. Still, when applied over so many books, it seems almost (and I hate to use the word, but I will do it anyway) lazy. I also resent the Donaldson monopoly. I have been to bookshops where the only books on display are Donaldson’s. I know that is beyond her control, and the fault of unimaginative booksellers and greedy publishers, but there are dozens of undiscovered contemporary children’s writers, whose books are better than Mrs Squash and a Squeeze’s. (I am working on a list for you will publish soon.)
It was a refreshing surprise, then, to see the official stage version of The Gruffalo this week, as it did almost everything it could to avoid a mere rythmic recitation. In fact, it teased the children by refusing to tell the story, getting distracted by other details, like the nature of ‘deep dark woods” and how a mouse might set about finding a nut within (with a handy nut map, of course). The company, Tall Stories, didn’t take a literal approach to staging the story either. It would have been easy to stick animal costumes on the actors, they used customised items of regular clothing and movement as signifiers instead.
The only character that appears as expected was, of course, The Gruffallo. And the children cheered all the louder for it.