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How Julia Donaldson became the benevolent giant of children’s books

'He bestrides children’s publishing like a colossus': Author Julia Donaldson with a Gruffalo cushion
'He bestrides children’s publishing like a colossus': Author Julia Donaldson with a Gruffalo cushion - Clara Molden

He has terrible tusks, terrible claws, terrible teeth in his terrible jaws, knobbly knees, turned-out toes, a poisonous wart at the end of his nose, orange eyes, a tongue that’s black and – last but not least – purple prickles down his back. He is Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo and he bestrides children’s publishing like a colossus.

The bipedal bear-like monster hit British shelves in 1999, with appealing illustrations by Donaldson’s long-time collaborator Axel Scheffler. In the ensuing 25 years, more than 18 million copies of the book and its sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, have been sold and it has been translated into 107 languages and dialects. German: Der Grüffelo. Finnish: Mörkö. Irish: An Garbhán. There has been a BBC version, part of a near-annual series of star-studded animations based on Donaldson’s books. There are stage versions, Gruffalo plush toys, Gruffalo costumes, Gruffalo biscuits.

In fact, the Gruffalo is so popular that his creator believes he is too big for his paws. “I think the Gruffalo’s the one everyone has heard of, even people who haven’t read the book,” Donaldson, 75, told BBC Radio Scotland earlier this week. “To be honest, what I like is when people single out one of my other books as their favourite, as I think the Gruffalo’s a bit spoilt.”

The story is based on an old Chinese folk tale, The Fox that Borrows the Terror of a Tiger. In Donaldson’s version, the mouse makes his way through a deep, dark wood. He encounters a series of potential predators: a fox, a snake and an owl. He dissuades them from eating him by telling them about the Gruffalo, a mythical apex predator. Or so the smug mouse thinks, until he encounters the beast. On the verge of being eaten, the mouse improvises and tells the Gruffalo he is in fact the scariest creature in the wood, and will prove it if they walk back the way he came. Seeing the Gruffalo walking behind the mouse prompts the fox, snake and owl to hightail it. With 700 mostly short words, a globe-spanning empire was born. Donaldson has said that she sometimes feels like the mouse in the story, who imagines a monster only to find it has become real.

As she told the BBC this week: “He hogs too much of the attention really.”

If the author was making light of the Gruffalo’s outsized presence in her oeuvre, there is nothing trivial about Donaldson’s position in children’s literature. Every year, the vice in which she holds children’s publishing screws a little tighter. In 2023, according to Nielsen Bookdata, Donaldson earned £15.6 million in sales, the 14th consecutive year her work has earned more than eight figures, which The Bookseller called an “unrivalled achievement”. Her net worth has previously been estimated at £85 million. Today that figure is probably well into nine figures. Last summer, a survey by The Works, a chain of shops, found that for one in eight parents, The Gruffalo was the first book they read to their child.

But it’s not just The Gruffalo. According to a Q&A on her website, Donaldson has written 210 books, 80 of which are available in shops. (The rest are for use in schools.) There’s Superworm, Zog the Dragon, The Smeds and the Smoos, Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale, The Smartest Giant in Town and Stick Man. Donaldson’s partnership with Scheffler has been her most successful, but she has worked with many different illustrators. In total she has sold more than 45 million print copies, with a value of more than £225 million.

“Every single one of her books sells constantly, they are like bread and butter in the bookshop,” says Sanchita Basu De Sarkar, owner of the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, north London. Donaldson has been a regular customer since the 1990s, and gave a talk there before Christmas. As usual, tickets sold out in minutes. The Gruffalo was the bestselling picture book in December.

“Her stories have an evergreen nature to them, her rhymes are infectious and deceptively clever. Children of that key learning-block age love being able to remember words and parrot along – all of our children coming in for storytime know all the words. Julia makes writing look so easy but it’s not easy to write prose in that way. We see so many picture-book writers try to copy her, but no one has her magic touch.”

“We get people who first read The Gruffalo as a child who are now in their 20s and are becoming teachers, going into the workforce, coming in to buy the books for younger children. There is a legacy they want to share.”

While Donaldson’s stories are varied, themes and tropes reoccur. She plays close attention to metre and rhyme. The Gruffalo is mostly in dactylic tetrameter, and she came up with the character’s name because it rhymes with “Didn’t you know?” Her stories often have satisfying twists and reversals of fortune. At the end of Tiddler, a tale of a little fish lost at sea, the title character narrates his tale to “a writer friend”, a brunette in a diving suit who bears a passing resemblance to Donaldson, in a metafictional conceit Martin Amis would have been proud of.

It all speaks to Donaldson’s strength, which is that she understands how to make language fun and trusts in the intelligence of her readers, whatever age they are.

“Julia raises the bar,” says Frank Cottrell-Boyce, a children’s author and scriptwriter. “It’s very obvious when you look at her work just how much depth and substance there is to them and how much work goes in. She dominates in the way Michelangelo dominated the Renaissance. That should be an encouragement. She’s the Beatles. They dominated that scene, but they ignited that scene. It’s not a deadening dominance. She pushes the envelope.”

Julia Donaldson
2011: Julia Donaldson entertains children at The Telegraph Hay Festival - Clara Molden

Nevertheless, some worry that Donaldson’s gargantuan brand comes at the expense of other authors – not least Scheffler himself. “I always feel slightly guilty that we are dominating the bookshops,” he told the Guardian in 2022. “I only hope that our books will open people up to buy other books.” Between Donaldson and celebrity children’s authors such as David Walliams, it can be difficult for new authors to get a look-in.

“We do see new authors coming through in the children’s sector,” says Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller. “It’s just very hard to fight against the brand recognition that someone like Julia Donaldson or David Walliams has when the amount of money being spent by parents may not be increasing.”

He adds that she benefits from gifting, when adults buying books as presents reach for a familiar name. “I think people who aren’t necessarily buying children’s books all the time, but as irregular gifts, will tend to flock to brands in ways they might not do in other areas of the business. It’s not a market they know – they’re buying for children or grandchildren. It gives children’s brands an outsized advantage that isn’t in the adult sectors. She’s a safe pair of hands, in that respect. You can see why once you’re in that sort of sphere, as a nation’s favourite, why the brand escalates.” In other words, you won’t get fired as a godparent for turning up with a Donaldson under your arm.

“I’m of the view that publishers making money is generally an all-round good,” he says. “They use that money to invest in other writers. I take a rosy view in a way some children’s authors don’t. But if you look at the children’s sector over a decade, it has grown and grown. I think it’s now the biggest bit of the market after non-fiction. That suggests that publishers are generally doing a good job by their authors. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some justified criticism in the way they invest in celebrities or brand names, to the disadvantage of other, newer authors.”

'He hogs too much of the attention really' Donaldson told the BBC of The Gruffalo
'He hogs too much of the attention really' Donaldson told the BBC of The Gruffalo - Clara Molden

He adds that Donaldson is generous about sharing the spoils around. As well as working with different illustrators, she has been published by different companies. The Gruffalo is with Macmillan, but Scholastic publish a number of her other titles.

“It’s hard to frown on success,” Jones says. “And she does use the brand to help other creatives. That’s a positive thing. She’s sprinkling her gold dust around the trade. For booksellers, having that recognised brand will get customers in the shop where unknown brands will struggle. It’s helpful for bookshops if there is a Gruffalo in their window in the run-up to Christmas.”

At the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, Sanchita needs no reminding of Donaldson’s power.

“What I love about her as a writer, and which sets her apart, is that she is adventurous,” she says. “She works with different illustrators, which is wonderful from our perspective as we don’t want to be giving away a book that looks the same all the time. She is constantly looking for ways to expand her storytelling. She is a bookseller’s dream.”

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