Author-illustrator team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler have been topping the U.K. bestseller charts over the last decade and a half, with such titles as A Squash and a Squeeze, Room on the Broom, Tabby McTat, and, most famously, The Gruffalo, which recently added to its many honors when the animated movie based on the book was recently nominated for an Oscar. The Gruffalo and its sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, have changed the expectations of what it is possible for a picture book to achieve not only in terms of sales (The Gruffalo has sold more than four million copies worldwide) but also in terms of profile. In Britain alone, The Gruffalo has been the star of World Book Day as well as the poster image for Children’s Book Week. It has been published in many different formats and adapted for stage and screen. As a result, Donaldson has been a guest on BBC’s iconic radio program Desert Island Discs while Scheffler has designed Christmas cards for former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. PW sat down for a chat with Donaldson and Scheffler during the recent London Book Fair.
How did you come to work together?
Donaldson: The story of A Squash and A Squeeze had stuck in a publisher’s mind and she approached me about it. I was busy writing songs at that time so I just wrote it as a song. The publisher approached three illustrators. Two said no but Axel said yes.
Scheffler: I’d done one or two picture books and I knew Kate Wilson, who was then working at Methuen Children’s Books. She suggested me and the publisher fixed it.
Donaldson: The whole experience has made me very philosophical about life. Axel just came along so it has made me realize that things just happen however much you plan.
Before A Squash and a Squeeze, what had you both been doing?
Scheffler: After college, I had been illustrating, since about 1986. I had come to England from Germany to study and then I stayed on. I had done a few picture books but nothing major.
Donaldson: I had been writing songs about all kinds of things, such as science and terrible smells – I’d even written a musical – and I’d written some plays for children but I had never sent them off. Back then, I hadn’t thought of my songs becoming picture books.
How do you work together? Does Julia come up with a complete text and then Axel goes away and draws it as he imagines it? Or do you work out what the characters will be like together?
Donaldson: I write a text in a complete vacuum. The editor doesn’t know, Axel doesn’t know. When it’s done, I show it to Axel. I think of Axel as my main illustrator – he does about one book a year. Sometimes I think, ‘I know he is nearly finished. Help! I must do the next book.’ And I do think about what Axel has to do in illustrating each story – although I can get that wrong. When I wrote Room on the Broom, Axel complained that there was not enough blue in the sky, it was too brown and grey. He sent me little messages saying so!
Scheffler: I don’t know anything at all before. When I get a text from Julia, I do the roughs and then send them to Julia and to Alison Green who is one of our editors.
Donaldson: Mostly I wouldn’t make any changes. In Room on the Broom, the witch was much older than I’d thought she would be. I said so to Alison but, very tactfully, she said, ‘You can’t ask an illustrator to change how they imagine a central character.’ Others mentioned that she had a wart on her nose just like the gruffalo but I didn’t mind about that!
The Gruffalo has become a huge seller in so many versions, and now there’s the animated version. How did the original story come about?
Donaldson: The idea for The Gruffalo came from something I was doing, turning traditional stories into little plays. Originally it was about a confrontation with a tiger but then I changed it to the gruffalo. The story wasn’t very typical of what was being published then. Most of the books at that time had very little text and were about loving and trusting parents or overcoming shyness by learning to smile – that kind of thing. I wanted to do something that was a bit more realistic about how life really is.
Scheffler: At that time, too, publishers were so fixated on the co-edition market that they wouldn’t do rhyme because it didn’t work so well in all markets.
Donaldson: Because of that one editor did suggest writing it in prose.
Was it an immediate success?
Donaldson: Not really! It got stuck at one publisher but then I sent it elsewhere and they loved it. After that, not a word of the manuscript was changed. The publisher then started looking for an illustrator. Several were mentioned before it was sent to Axel.
Scheffler: I remember very well receiving the letter with the story. I was having supper with Kate Wilson that night so I showed it to her and she saw the potential immediately. For me, it was the characters who came first. In one version I did, the gruffalo looked too scary so I tried to make him a bit less frightening.
Was Axel’s vision of the gruffalo the same as yours?
Donaldson: I didn’t have an exact idea of what the gruffalo looked like when I wrote it, but then I told the story on a lot of school visits and the children did lots of pictures of how they imagined him to be. They were often very inventive and I think I did see him as more modern and weird. But now I’m glad he’s a forest creature.
And I did have some reservations. Originally, Axel drew the characters clothed. I rang Alison and said I didn’t want them in clothes.
Scheffler: Julia was right about the clothes. I took them off. But I did keep the mouse upright. I didn’t think about the reasons why. I just drew it like that and it seemed right.
Donaldson: The original mouse looked like a rabbit. It had very long ears!
You’ve both worked in other creative partnerships. Can you say what is special about working with each other?
Donaldson: I just know I am always excited when I get the roughs. I’m never nervous. With other illustrators I sometimes am! With Axel I know there will be lots of inventive and humorous details; he adds things that aren’t in the text. He always seems to understand the point of the story but he doesn’t try to be too ‘stylish.’ Also, Axel is very un-egotistical.
Scheffler: I just get the text and do my vision of it. As an illustrator you have to be able to imagine the whole book. I don’t show it to Julia as it goes along. I just do it as it feels right to me. I see the whole thing as a partnership. Maybe because of the way our working grew out of that partnership we work so well together.
How do you respond to comment or criticism?
Donaldson: I get very angry! But mostly we have it very easy in children’s books because we get so much positive feedback. Sometimes we get negative comments on Amazon. I find that annoying!
Scheffler: I find it difficult if an editor has a clear visions which isn’t the same as mine. They are my friends and usually I give in. I’m a very obedient illustrator. They know the business so when they say things like ‘you can’t have teeth and claws,’ I expect they know because they say editors in other countries won’t have them.
What are the advantages of writing a book in rhyme?
Donaldson: I don’t think about it in terms of writing a picture book in rhyme. It’s just what I do because I wrote songs. But I don’t always write in rhyme. Sometimes it isn’t the best way to tell the story. In bad hands, rhyme can make a story interminable but the reverse is that when it is done well you can write very concisely, you don’t have to describe everything. Also, if you use rhyme you can add a motif, some pattern of a chorus, so it is like a ballad.
What are the challenges of writing for such a young audience?
Donaldson: The audience doesn’t have to be so young. I just write the book and some come out much younger than others. The only constraint because it is for young people is that the vocabulary has to be concise. But I don’t think consciously about my audience. I just write the best I can.
What were the main challenges in illustrating The Gruffalo?
Scheffler: The text wasn’t challenging but I had a hard time doing it. I can’t now remember what the problems were! I do remember that just getting the scale right was a problem. And I was very concerned about the cover. I didn’t want to have the gruffalo on the cover but the publisher did. Overall, it took about four or five months to do it and, as Julia has said, there were some changes along the way.
What have been your major artistic influences?
Scheffler: It’s really hard to pin down what the major influences on me were. I got interested in children’s illustrations in my late teens. Tomi Ungerer was one of the main influences – his eyes especially. We have the same eyes in our pictures! I loved his cartoony style. And then Edward Gorey and Sempé – these were the kind of books I liked. But I wouldn’t say they were direct influences. I think my style just developed as a mixture of continental and American. William Steig is one of my greatest heroes. I only discovered him late but he then became my favorite writer.
Did the overwhelming success of one title make you feel you ought to be writing a followup, or has it given you scope to try other things?
Donaldson: The success of The Gruffalo has given me freedom, not taken it away. Because of its success I’ve written fiction, including a teenage novel, and I might not have been able to do that if The Gruffalo hadn’t done so well. Now I can experiment more. I can write poems and books of songs.
Scheffler: I always feel constraints. I’m always saying I want to do something different but I am not allowed. I’d like to try something freer and looser but I don’t have time to play around anymore. I miss that, but it is probably not going to happen. Although, you never know, there’s always the next book! Now [that] I have a toddler of my own, it hasn’t changed my illustration style but I love seeing what she’s doing. I’ve done two Pip and Posy books which are partly about toddler things.
What are the challenges of creating picture books in the current market?
Donaldson: I don’t know what the challenges are, really. I love picture books because they can be about anything. There now seem to be a lot of people doing books about scary monsters. And loads of books in rhyme. I think we started something!
What are you working on next?
Donaldson: The current situation with Axel is that I’ve just completed a text which I think he has very recently been shown and is considering.
Scheffler: Yes. I’m considering it – but I can’t even find time to do that properly. [Right now] I’m working on Pip & Posy: The Scary Monster – it’s a worm story.