‘At first she didn’t like my drawings’: Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson on three decades of collaboration

Read Time:14 Minute, 6 Second

The Guardian

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of children’s publishing – are sitting in Donaldson’s garden in West Sussex on one of the hottest days of the year, gazing into her fish pond. “There’s Swampy,” smiles Donaldson, pointing to a fat fish flapping past. “And that one’s John.” Scheffler, as solemn as Donaldson is sunny, makes the brief nod of one who has heard about the fish many times before, but is still quietly amused by them.

Ever since their first book together, A Squash and a Squeeze, was published in 1993, the two have been explaining to their millions upon millions of readers that they don’t actually work alongside each other: she writes the books in Sussex, he then does the illustrations from his home in Richmond, London. Yet they have an easy companionability. He admires how her garden has grown since the start of Covid, she joshes him about him being “too busy” to make the forthcoming celebrations for her and her husband Malcolm’s 50th wedding anniversary. “Well, the holiday was booked … ” Scheffler murmurs apologetically.

Malcolm, Donaldon’s husband and a retired paediatrician, appears from the house, pocket camera in hand. “I want to capture this historic meeting, the two greats together,” he says. Donaldson makes self-conscious protests about her appearance, Scheffler hardly bothers to adjust his pose, but they both look at the camera and make similarly patient smiles.

The reason for this historic meeting is that Donaldson, 72, and Scheffler, 64, have agreed to give a rare joint interview to discuss their new book, The Baddies, which tells the story of three wicked creatures who delight in scaring people: “And the worst thing about the three baddies / (The troll and the witch and the ghost) / Was the fact that all three of them liked being bad / And what’s more, they all liked to boast.” Like all of Donaldson’s books, it is as satisfying for parents to read as it is for children to hear, thanks to her singsong, click-into-place rhymes, honed in her early years as a songwriter.

An illustration from The Baddies by Donaldson and Scheffler. Photograph: Julia Donaldson

The Baddies is Donaldson and Scheffler’s first book since 2019’s The Smeds and the Smoos, and it is – at Donaldson’s conservative estimation – their 25th together. Not since Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake have a writer and illustrator been more fruitfully matched, with Donaldson’s clever and warm rhymes brought to life by Scheffler’s detail-packed colourful pictures. Their collaborations include immortal classics like The Snail and the Whale, Room on the Broom, Zog and – of course – The Gruffalo, which helped to make Donaldson the biggest-selling author of any age group in the last decade. To put that into perspective, a Donaldson book is sold every 11 seconds in the UK, and the vast majority are illustrated by Scheffler.

Like Lennon and McCartney, the two occasionally work on books separately, but the real magic happens when they come together, and their books inspire the ubiquitous stage shows, the now near-traditional BBC Christmas Day adaptations and the endless merchandise. “Julia would never be where she is without Axel,” Malcolm says, and the reverse is true, too: Scheffler, who moved to the UK from Germany in his 20s to study art, has been celebrated by everyone from Royal Mail, which has featured his instantly recognisable drawings on stamps, to 11 Downing Street, when the then-chancellor Gordon Brown asked Scheffler to design the Treasury’s Christmas card. I ask Donaldson if she always offers her books to Scheffler first before approaching other illustrators. “I probably shouldn’t say this as the other illustrators will be cross,” she says, “but I do, if I think the story is really, really good. I did one about caterpillars [The Woolly Bear Caterpillar, published last year], and I didn’t feel the story was quite original enough for something I’d want Axel to do.” (Instead, the award-winning illustrator Yuval Zommer was considered a worthy substitute.)

Has Scheffler ever turned down one of Donaldson’s books?

“Oh yes,” he says. “I think three times. There was something about the text I didn’t like.”

Can he say which books?

“No he can’t!” their publisher’s PR cries out from the sidelines. Scheffler shrugs at me.

Did they instantly know, when Scheffler made the drawings for A Squash and a Squeeze almost 30 years ago, about an old woman who thinks her house is too small, that they’d found each other’s work soulmate?

“Actually, she didn’t like my drawings,” Scheffler says.

“I did like your drawings! But let’s not talk about the woman’s bosoms … ” Donaldson says.

“Yes we have different versions of that debate,” he says drily.

“I didn’t mean they were too saggy, I meant they were shaded and the rest of her wasn’t,” she says, sighing at this three decades-old argument. It’s not quite like witnessing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bicker over who first brought the blues to the Rolling Stones, but it’s not far off.

The three of us leave the scorching garden and seek shade in Donaldson’s sitting room. Though she has earned squillions from her books, Donaldson’s home is utterly unflashy: a typical low-ceilinged cosy cottage, decorated with family photos, mainly of her nine grandchildren. Only the occasional letter from a fan gives a clue as to who lives here. “I did not like The Gruffalo because you keep repeating things over and over. Please use my suggestions when you write your next book,” reads a letter in the downstairs loo from a 10-year-old. “Isn’t that wonderful?” Donaldson laughs.

Illustration from Tabby McTat by Donaldson and Scheffler.

She always replies to children’s letters. “And they haven’t changed over the decades. It’s always the usual mix of ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ to ‘Why do you wear such funny shoes?’ I love it, because adults are probably dying to ask about my shoes but they just say, ‘Are you inspired by Tolkien?’”

In The Baddies, the witch, the troll and the ghost come a cropper when a little girl refuses to be scared by them. Although it’s never mentioned in the story, she is of south Asian heritage. Is this the first time they’ve featured a non-caucasian main character?

“Well, we don’t usually have people in our books at all,” says Donaldson, meaning that their collaborations are usually animal- (and Gruffalo) based.

“The editor told me to draw her that way so I said OK. Easy answer,” says Scheffler.

“I get a bit defensive about this because people talk as if it’s only now that you have to be inclusive,” adds Donaldson. “But years ago, when I was writing a phonics story, I thought it would be nice to have a Black child play Cinderella, and the publisher said, ‘You can’t do that because someone might call her Cinders!’ So I had someone with a wheelchair instead. But publishers are now talking as if they’ve just thought of all this themselves.”

Donaldson has always prioritised storytelling over moral lessons. “I think there are far too many books which are about saying it’s OK to be different. Like, there’s this little hippo who was purple and all the other hippos were yellow, and the purple hippo went off and they really missed him, and when he came back they said, ‘We love you being purple! It’s OK to be different!’” she says with no small amount of sarcasm. (She is enjoyably spiky when it comes to what she does and doesn’t like about children’s books; the bestselling Where’s Wally books are dismissed with a brusque: “I hate those – I’m not the best at finding things.”)

Yet their previous book together, The Smeds and the Smoos, about two mutually suspicious groups of aliens, was very overt in its message, which is that prejudice is wrong. Because it came out in 2019, and was dedicated – at Scheffler’s suggestion – “To all the children of Europe”, many assumed that it was a protest against Brexit. Scheffler, who was born in Hamburg and has a French partner, has been particularly outspoken in his opposition to Brexit, even turning the Gruffalo into “the Brusselo” in a cartoon for the Guardian in 2016, a fantasy monster scaring Brits into anti-EU sentiment.

“The Smeds and the Smoos wasn’t about Brexit, it was just Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending,” Donaldson insists. “I never start a book thinking, ‘I want to teach the world to stop being at war.’”

“There is always a message in your stories, but it’s done very subtly, and that’s the great thing about your work,” says Scheffler.

So The Baddies don’t represent, say, Brexit, Covid and climate change?

“No, no!” cries Donaldson, while Scheffler says simultaneously “Oh that’s a good idea!” He then ponders how he might have pulled that off, Donaldson’s objections notwithstanding: “I should have drawn one of the baddies with that [Boris Johnson] hair.”

Donaldson has in the past talked about her concerns for today’s children, from them having to wear masks in school to the effects of social media. So I persist with my theory that perhaps The Baddies is a parable about how much resilience modern kids need to deal with the world – and she persists in batting it away: “No, no, no,” she says firmly.

Does she see books as a way for children to learn about the world around them, or an oasis in which they can escape from it?

“It goes deeper than that. The stories should be universal, so if there is a message, it should be for anyone at any time,” she says.

It’s not difficult to see elements of Donaldson’s own story in her work. Born into a bohemian family in Hampstead, north London, she grew up in a home that she, her parents and sister shared with her grandmother, uncle and aunt. Her parents encouraged her and her sister “to absolutely be ourselves”, and Donaldson wrote musical versions of fairytales, which the four of them would perform for the extended family. To this day, she thinks of herself as a “performer-author”, and she and Malcolm frequently put on shows of her books; at the time of our interview, they are preparing for a performance at the Edinburgh festival.

“Here, I’ll show you,” she says standing up, and Malcolm – keen as ever – runs over to perform alongside her.

“A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood / The mouse saw the nut and the nut looked good,” Donaldson begins. The temperature outside is a furnace, but watching Donaldson perform her own classic, it’s impossible not to shiver with joy.

After studying drama and French at university, she busked around Europe, joined by a fellow performing enthusiast, who was, of course, Malcolm. I ask if their busking days inspired Donaldson and Scheffler’s book, Tabby McTat, about a busking cat and his shabby human, Fred. “Julia’s sister says Fred is who I’d be if I hadn’t met Julia, which I deeply resent,” Malcolm chortles. He is certainly as devoted as Fred: when Donaldson can’t remember quite when she finished writing The Baddies, Malcolm consults his diary and gives her precise start and finishing dates.

“When Julia’s writing, I’m like a father who is at the birth of a child. I can’t have the baby, so I’m on hand to make the tea,” Malcolm says.

When I first arrive at the Donaldsons’ house, Malcolm gives me a tour, which largely consists of him naming everyone in the family photos on the walls. “This is Jerry and Alastair, our two sons,” he says, pointing at pictures of two men. “Our oldest son Hamish died, which is terribly sad,” he says, voice catching a little.

I had been expressly told beforehand by the PR not to ask Donaldson about Hamish, who killed himself in 2003 at the age of 25, after living for many years with a severe schizoaffective disorder. But her books do her talking for her. In a 2009 interview with the Guardian about her book Running on the Cracks, which touches on mental illness, Donaldson said: “After Hamish died, people would say to me, ‘You are so wonderful to still be writing,’ but in a way we were more wonderful keeping going while it was all happening. We did a lot of grieving for Hamish long before he died.’”

The Gruffalo, illustration by Scheffler. Photograph: Axel Scheffler

Since her son’s death, a running theme of Donaldson’s stories has been characters who wander off a path, but – unlike Hamish – eventually find their way home: The Gruffalo’s Child, which came out the year after he died; Stick Man, which she has said references Hamish; Tiddler; Tabby McTat, and so on. Her popular series Princess Mirror-Belle was overtly inspired by Hamish and his imaginary friend in the mirror. In her books, Donaldson can control the story, and guarantee a happy ending.

I ask Scheffler if his and his German-French family’s lives have changed much in Britain since Brexit. “Not so much on a day-to-day basis, but I look at the quality of politicians in this country and it’s incredible. In Germany, it would be unthinkable to have such incompetent, cynical and corrupt people in government. Sorry, I’m getting political,” he says.

Scheffler found his way into art by being political. “When I was growing up in Hamburg, there was the Vietnam war going on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there are teenage drawings of mine in which I reflected on that, so that was my formation,” he says. “Oh! I didn’t know that,” says Donaldson, turning to him in surprise. “Now I draw rabbits and mice,” he says and they look at each other and laugh.

We have sailed past our allotted time by now but I have one last question from my three-year-old: why, at the end of A Squash and a Squeeze, does the pig look angry but the other animals don’t?

“You’ll have to ask the pig, I’m not responsible for my characters!” laughs Scheffler, and Donaldson nods: “It’s nice when children see things in the books I’m not aware of. You know they’re really looking at them.”

September 3, 2022 at 01:46PM Hadley Freeman

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