In two decades of writing stories, songs, and plays for children, Julia Donaldson has published more than 30 picture books. She often teams with artist Axel Scheffler, whose pictures appear in the U.K. and European sensations The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, as well as in Room on the Broom, a familiar Halloween pick here in the U.S. Donaldson recently visited the U.S. from her home in Glasgow to promote Stick Man (Scholastic/Levine), illustrated by Scheffler, and her new YA novel, Running on the Cracks (Holt).
In Stick Man, you introduce a humble stick that is taken far from home and almost becomes kindling. How did you invent this unusual hero?
It was two things coming together. In my book The Gruffalo’s Child, the child drags a stick doll everywhere, and that must have sparked it. And I fully remember my own children, 20-odd years ago, loving sticks. When we would go out for a walk, they would find a stick, and it wouldn’t always become a weapon. Sometimes it would be a violin. My oldest son especially would use his imagination to imbue things with life. A stick could be anything to anyone.
You worked on Stick Man with Axel Scheffler and with editor Alison Green of Scholastic U.K. How did you develop the rhythms and design of this picture book?
Alison and I worked very closely on the pagination, since it is so important when the page turns happen. We would work on the layout of the book, where the text is placed in relation to the pictures, and then Axel would come in and do the illustration. Axel is happy to have the design of the book, as in, “Can you do a full page here, some insets here?”
Since I live in Glasgow and Axel is [closer to the publisher] in London, he will come in with some sketches and they’ll talk about layout. I won’t actually dictate the design—that’s the vision of the artist. What I love about Axel in particular is the way little things add to the story.
In his pictures, a squirrel, pigeon, and frog try to warn Stick Man of danger, but there is a memorable cat who doesn’t remove Stick Man from a fireplace.
I know, that cat—I can’t decide whether it’s impassive or sinister. I never can wait to see his illustrations.
Fortunately, Santa Claus arrives down the chimney and Stick Man is saved. Did you set out to write a holiday tale?
It’s nice commercially that it could be marketed as a Christmas story, but I wanted to write a book about the seasons. The book was intended to take up a whole year, although Axel may have drawn the leaves a bit too far. Stick Man becomes part of a nest in the spring, and there’s a section where Stick Man is being used by children for all different things [“I’m not a pen!/ I’m not a bow!/ I’m not a bat…/ or a boomerang, no…”]—that’s autumn.
Your bouncy rhyme is a pleasure to read, and your ear for verse has enabled you to work as a songwriter for children’s TV and as a children’s playwright. Do you perform your rhymes or set them to music as you write?
I have written a lot of plays and I love performing, acting out the stories. My place is full of props and puppets, and I dramatize my stories at book festivals. When I’ve written something, I give it to someone—my husband or one of my children. If they stumble, putting the stress on the wrong word, I will then rework a line. It’s quite a labor of love, actually.
I like to have a structure, some refrain, and it’s got to have a lively meter, not to be just tedious. In this book, it’s “I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man,/ I’M STICK MAN, that’s me!” I delay writing until I have found something like that, some special motif, and if I can’t find that recurrent phrase, I’ll write a story in prose.
Do you have any favorite poets you keep in mind when composing verse?
Books we absolutely loved in our house when the children were little were the books by Arnold Lobel, about human foibles embodied in Frog and Toad. For the language, I probably think of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. For my book The Snail and the Whale I was unconsciously or semi-consciously imitating Lear and “The Jumblies.”
And Shakespeare: when I was young I memorized the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When I was in fifth grade my father gave me The Book of a Thousand Poems, and I learned those poems by heart. People of my generation also would be brought up with lots of nursery rhymes, unlike children now. I think many children and even young adults today actually love rhyme but they would struggle terribly to find a meter that would trip off the tongue.
Many of your stories emphasize kindness. Do you set out to focus on altruism, or is the aim a suspenseful, funny story?
It is true that in quite a few of my books it might seem there’s a message of compassion among people, but I think that’s probably true of most books. Even if that stuff comes out, I certainly would never set out in a preachy way to teach children to share. I do want a good storyline, a fable or something a bit quirky.
Perhaps the idea of compassion figures so strongly in Stick Man because he’s a plain old stick, carried away against his will—he’s not a lost animal or even a cute stuffed toy, and usually no one rescues a stick.
He is rather helpless. In one early version, which was more like a fairy tale, he was going to help himself. It was based on the tale of the Three Little Pigs, and he was going to be built into the house and get himself out. Instead he ended up passive, and he can’t really help himself. He needs help from others. That’s the most poignant part of the book. We act this out on stage with Stick Man finger puppets, my sister and my husband and I, and in that moment when he’s returned to the family, we’ve got tears in our eyes, and the audience has tears in their eyes.
My [now-grown] son of course is quite cynical and says, yes, he’s home now, but what if he’s got to go out again tomorrow? And children will ask questions like that—they will say, what if he goes out there again?
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson, illus. by Axel Scheffler. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-545-15761-2