If asked to name last year’s overall bestselling author in the UK, who would you pick? Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling? Horror writer Stephen King? Master of mystery, Richard Osman?
You’d be wrong on all three counts. In fact, Julia Donaldson took the crown, and that was across all genres. Meanwhile, her long-time friend and colleague, Axel Scheffler, was the number one bestselling illustrator of 2022 proving, if proof were needed, that their picture book partnership is loved by children everywhere.
Now, a major new exhibition at The Lowry in Salford is celebrating their longstanding collaboration. Opening on Saturday 22 July, Julia and Axel – Thirty Years of Favourite Stories is a free family-family experience containing, among numerous treats, Donaldson’s own writing notebooks and a selection of Scheffler’s early sketches.
With more books than you can shake a Stick Man at, Donaldson and Scheffler’s output has been prodigious – and phenomenally successful. From The Gruffalo, Zog, and Room on the Broom to Tabby McTat, The Smeds and the Smoos and The Smartest Giant in Town, their publications are acclaimed the world over. They’ve certainly made the most of their time, but does it feel like three decades?
Scheffler says: “It’s really weird when people who are 30-years-old come up to us and say, ‘I read The Gruffalo as a child’, that’s a very strange feeling. That does seem like a long time ago.”
Of course, the magical thing about picture books is that children and parents (and grandparents, aunts and uncles) can read them together, some discovering them for the first time, others revisiting old favourites.
“That is very rewarding,” says Donaldson. “Ironically, the younger the book is pitched, the more likely an adult is going to read it to a child.”
The Lowry anticipates that multiple generations will visit the new exhibition, meaning that families can enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at Donaldson and Scheffler’s work. For instance, this is the first time that so many of Donaldson’s personal writing notebooks have been shown as a collection, thereby shining a light on the first ideas and creative writing behind her stories. It also means that visitors will have the chance to see how her work has developed and changed over the years.
At the same time, the display of Scheffler’s artwork will chart the development of his illustrations, from works-in-progress to full-page final illustrations which are instantly recognisable to anyone who has read the books.
“Seeing the originals is exciting for many people,” reflects Scheffler. “I think seeing the artwork is special, and also seeing inside the process.”
Donaldson adds: “And the extras that The Lowry is putting on sounds imaginative. So maybe some children will come away fired up to do stuff themselves, to write or draw, or act or dress up.”
Alongside the landmark exhibition will be a specially created ‘storybook room’, inspired by Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book. This will provide opportunities for friends and family to come together to read and enjoy Donaldson and Scheffler’s bestsellers. In addition, throughout the exhibition there will be lots of fun stuff for children to do, including writing their own stories, drawing pictures, dressing up, and playing games inspired by the books.
“Encouraging creativity in children is important”, say Donaldson and Scheffler, “especially when seeing things close-up.”
“Thinking about myself, I’m sure I wanted to write because of reading poems that I loved,” recalls Donaldson. “Or I wanted to act because I’d been to see plays. I don’t think you really want to do something unless you’ve got a little bit of familiarity with it.
“When I was five, I got a book called The Book of 1000 Poems and I wanted then to become a poet. That was my ambition. I love stories, I love poems, music, all of those things. But, actually, it just kind of happened. It grew out of busking, out of songwriting. Songwriting led to work for television and that led to A Squash and a Squeeze being a book, and that led to me write books. So, it wasn’t like I was desperate to be a writer, it was quite organic.”
It was a similar story with Axel in that, as a young person, he wasn’t initially inspired to become an illustrator.
“You have to do something when you’re grown up, you have to make a living, and drawing was apparently something I was OK at. I grew into it, really.”
Meanwhile, The Lowry exhibition will be structured about three themes: Highways, Heroes, and Home, all key elements of the books. Visitors will no doubt seek out their favourite characters who epitomise these subjects, whether it’s the brave little girl from last year’s bestseller The Baddies or Stick Man, who (spoiler) reunites with his ‘Stick Lady Love and their stick children three’.
Another prolific author, Charles Dickens, called his books his children, noting that his ‘favourite child’ was David Copperfield. So, do Donaldson and Scheffler have ‘favourite children’?
Donaldson says: “It does chop and change but I really like The Scarecrows’ Wedding, maybe partly because we included it in the show we did at the Edinburgh Fringe and I got to act Betty O’Barley. I had a pink spotted dress. I love the summery feel of it, and I love the love triangle that’s got a Hollywood thing with Reginald Rake.
“Doing it on the stage, the bit when it goes ‘The farmer came by with a frown on his face, and he made a new scarecrow to take Harry’s place’, and Reginald Rake is brought on, it always just brought the house down. I love that one.”
As for Scheffler, he says: “I don’t have one favourite but I always say that I like the more wacky ones, the more crazy ones. So, The Smeds and The Smoos or Stick Man or The Highway Rat, I think he’s quite ridiculous. But I also like the fairy tale world better than the real world, so things like the mix of giants and animals and everybody living in a crazy world.”
Donaldson adds: “And yet, I think Axel does such a good job on [the others]. Probably the most vaguely realistic one is Tabby McTat because it is a real cat that is a pet and has to be fed, and I think Axel did a really good job.”
Nevertheless, Scheffler did draw the cat rather larger than your average feline and, at the request of the publisher, had to redraw Tabby McTat without any teeth.
“I had to take the teeth out,” he says. “I think the publisher thought the teeth were too scary.”
These details are catnip to fans of the book, and the kind of behind-the-scenes secrets that young (and older) readers can expect to find at The Lowry’s exhibition. Thankfully, Donaldson and Scheffler have no qualms about revealing their creative processes. In fact, Scheffler says that “seeing the original illustrations is exciting, and they look very different from the printed ones”.
Donaldson also reveals that the length of time taken to produce a book can vary. While the actual writing process may be a few weeks, what she calls the “gestation” period can be up to a year.
“A lot of it is working out what the story is going to be. You can’t just write it if you don’t know what the story is going to be, and that’s the tricky part.”
Thankfully, her creativity means that negotiating ‘the tricky part’ has resulted in many much-loved books, now rightly regarded as children’s classics. And every single one created jointly by Donaldson and Scheffler will be included in The Lowry’s exhibition.
“That’s 28 books in total, across the picture books and Tales from Acorn Wood,” says Michael Simpson, Director of Visual Arts at The Lowry. “So, it’s a lot of books. We want to treat all of them exactly the same. Obviously, some like The Gruffalo and Zog and Stick Man are hugely popular, but they’ve done loads of others.
“Our starting point was that we wanted to inspire the next generation of Julias and Axels of this world, the writers and illustrators of the future…We want to give every young visitor the opportunity to be creative during the exhibition. The bottom line is this – we really want children to feel that they’ve got some insight into the books. We want children to feel that they can have a good time and for their families to join in with them.”
He continues: “We think it will be a lot of fun for families and we think that children will have lots of things to do.”
In the meantime, if you can’t wait until the Julia and Axel exhibition opens in order to glean various tantalising morsels of information, consider this: Donaldson has two young cats at home called Tabitha and McTat. By all accounts, they are PURRRR-fectly happy.