No Gruff About It

Julia Donaldson is a little tired of being asked about "The Gruffalo." Her popular children's book was published about a decade ago, becoming a bestseller in many languages, and bringing the British writer out of her anonymity. The book and its sequel, "The Gruffalo's Child," have won several important prizes, and "The Gruffalo" was even adapted into a play, performed on London's West End and on Broadway in 2005. Although she has since become one of the most successful children's authors, Donaldson is still identified mainly with that book.

"Of course I love 'The Gruffalo,'" she says in a phone interview from her home in Glasgow, Scotland. "I did after all create it, and for some reason it became a success. Since then the book has been dramatized, and occasionally children come over to stage-play it with us during book festivals. It's a lot of fun. But people don't quite understand that I have moved on and now there are other things that interest me."

Donaldson, 60, is a prolific writer, and has published dozens of children's books and plays to date. So far, in addition to "The Gruffalo," published by Maariv, and its sequel, "The Gruffalo's Child," published by Kinneret, more than 10 of her other books have also been translated into Hebrew, including "The Smartest Giant in Town," "Monkey Puzzle," and others, all by Kinneret. This week a Hebrew translation of her new book, "The Princess and the Wizard," with its captivating illustrations, hit local stores.

Donaldson's books contain little text - most of the pages are taken up by illustrations. She says she prefers writing for young children, since her talent for rhymes is reflected in these books. At times, it seems as though a few of her books - perhaps because of the fast rate at which they are published - abide by a common formula. But there's no question that "The Gruffalo" represents Donaldson at her best: Its language testifies to her feeling for music; she is used to performing in front of children at reading events with her guitar. The story's plot - about a mouse that manages to cleverly evade the animals who want to devour it, including a monster called "the Gruffalo" - is complex for a children's book, presenting both a problem and a reassuring solution.

The refrain, "Doesn't he know? There's no such thing as a Gruffalo?" reappears throughout the story like a suggestive statement. It isn't hard to guess that on a deeper level the book is meant to confront fears. Donaldson addresses children's fears in a manner both delicate and sophisticated. Why does she think children liked the book? Donaldson modestly ventures a guess that the rhymes and the illustrations captivated the kids. But she also agrees that the children identify with the figure of the weak mouse, the ultimate anti-hero.

Donaldson says she is fascinated by stories of survivors, people who started out with nothing and are seeking their place in the world. She does in fact write about them frequently - as, for example, in a new book for teenagers that has not yet been published, about a girl and a boy who live on the street. Perhaps she can identify with survivors, after all, it took her a long time before she became a famous writer.

Donaldson grew up in a Victorian stone house in London, and apparently enjoyed a happy childhood with her family. She decided to study French and theater at Bristol University, and planned to be an actress. Once at university, she met her husband Malcolm, today a pediatrician. After completing their studies the two traveled all over Europe and became street stringers, singing Beatles' tunes and songs written by Donaldson near cafes in Rome and Paris. In a way they never stopped singing; nowadays Malcolm acts alongside her in the plays she writes. "I'm the princess, he's the wizard, with the costumes and everything," she says.

When the couple returned to England, Donaldson continued to write songs. It was after sending one of her songs to the BBC that the door to the world of children's television opened for her, and she performed her songs on several programs. At the same time she wrote children's plays and performed in schools. In 1993 she published her first book, "A Squash and a Squeeze," an adaptation of one of her songs.

Even now, when she is busy traveling all over the world to promote her books, Donaldson continues to seek direct interaction with the audience. "Meeting with little children is different," she says. "They ask very funny questions, such as what kind of cookies I like. They are always touching and enthusiastic." They don't read the way we do, of course, Donaldson remarks. But she believes that children will return to reading at an older age if their parents read to them when they are young.

She herself read a great deal in her childhood. Although her family did get a television when she was 10 years old, they only watched for an hour a day. That's different from today, she says. Donaldson read everything girls like at that age, but she particularly liked Edith Nesbit's books. They were very realistic, she says, but there was always some small detail in the story that deviated from realism. That influenced Donaldson when she wrote, for example in her books about Princess Mirror-Belle.

The series, designed for school-age children, tells the story of Elle, a girl who discovers an imaginary friend in the mirror. Donaldson says the idea originated with her eldest son Hamish, who used to call one of their closets an "elevator." Every time he would get into the closet, which had a long mirror, he would emerge as a different character.

Hamish suffered from schizophrenia and committed suicide six years ago at age 25. His tragic life story casts a shadow over Donaldson's life: Behind the cute books, the smiles and the guitar, actually lies great sadness.

Two years ago, in a rare interview in The Sunday Times, in which she talked about Hamish's death for the first time, Donaldson spoke at length about his difficult childhood and his illness. Later, The Sunday Times reported that she had spoken out in favor of increasing the punishment for use and possession of soft drugs. But Donaldson says her words were taken out of context and her son did not commit suicide because of drugs, although drugs exacerbated his condition.

In light of her personal tragedy, it is hard, upon rereading, not to see her books - especially "The Gruffalo" - as stories about people fighting their demons. In the book, contrary to what happened in real life, Donaldson bestows the mouse with the wisdom it needs to escape from the trap without a scratch. That act teaches us about the story's healing power.

Her new book "The Princess and the Wizard," also contains something of the dark quality of "The Gruffalo" - perhaps even more so. The story, a modern adaptation of several fairy tales, begins just like "Sleeping Beauty," and even makes ironic reference to it. It is the story of a princess who didn't invite the evil wizard to her birthday party. Once he finds out, he turns her and all the palace's visitors into stone, kidnaps the princess and imprisons her in his palace. The good fairy that tries to change her fate gives the princess the ability to change color and shape, to help her escape. But instead of the princess closing her eyes and becoming passive for 100 years until the prince arrives, as in the classical fairy tale, she is doomed to a Sisyphean life. The princess' escape is described in many pages, and even her resourcefulness almost fails to save her.

There is something cruel in the fact that each time she changes color and shape to escape, the wizard reads his book of magic and discovers her actions. Her punishment - backbreaking housework - calls for a feminist reading. As such, the first time she turns herself into a blue fish and escapes via a moat that surrounds the palace, her punishment is to wash dirty and sticky blue dishes. The next day, when she turns herself into a yellow chick, she has to patch yellow socks. And so on.

Is the princess being punished for her independence and disobedience? Donaldson refuses to interpret the emotionally charged book in a feminist manner, or for that matter any other manner. It is evident that she is afraid such statements will deter the parents. She says she doesn't want them to think the book is too serious. "My intention was to write a book about colors and camouflage. No more than that. I'm not in favor of writing a book with a message."

In any case, all of Donaldson's books have a happy end, even those directed at older children. In "The Princess and the Wizard," the princess turns herself into a blank page, another symbol we can burden with numerous psychological and feminist analyses, thereby tricking the wizard. Donaldson says one has to be optimistic to write hopeful books. "Otherwise what's the point?"