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The Gruffalo's Julia Donaldson on why she wants to build a library

The celebrated author explains why she is supporting Big Give and why she wants to build a library

Children's author Julia Donaldson CBE attends an event to celebrate 20 years of the Waterstones Children's Laureate © Getty
Laura Benjamin
News Director
March 19, 2024
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As one of the most famous children’s authors in the UK, Julia Donaldson is used to being peppered with questions by her youngest fans. But, she tells Hello! in an exclusive interview, when she visits schools to talk to pupils, the things she is asked are often unexpected. The supremely talented creator of classic tales like The Gruffalo and Room on The Broom said: “What I really like about doing events for children is they sometimes ask such quirky questions. They often say things like ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ But recently they have been saying: ‘How did you get to be famous?’ or ‘Why have you got those funny shoes on?

“And someone once said to me: “How much longer is this going to go on for, because we usually watch videos?”

However, she does also pick up many compliments for her clever rhyming tales, which encompasses more than 200 stories, many of which have been turned into animated plays and television shows. “I think one of the nicest things is when a parent says their child knows one of my stories off by heart and can recite it all. I was that child who used to learn poems and I know how enjoyable that is.”

Julia and Malcolm Donaldson Stratford 2023 © Rupert Barnes
Julia and Malcolm Donaldson performing at a literary show

A former Children’s Laureate, Julia wants to spread that joy to all children. As patron of the Stratford Literary Festival’s charitable Outreach work, she is heavily involved in a campaign to improve the quality and visibility of school libraries, while she also supports the organisation’s schemes to encourage prisoners to write bedtime stories for their children and programme of sending authors into schools to talk to pupils. Next week she is helping raise funds for the its Build a Library campaign, which will benefit five schools in the area – and every penny donated will receive a matched donation from Big Give charity. “A lot of school libraries are quite depleted and it's important for the books look nice and appeal to children,” she explains. “I've become very aware that a significant number of primary schools don't have a library and even more significantly, lots don't have someone to run them.

I'm very keen that all children have the opportunity to read for pleasure. Unfortunately there are a lot of homes where there aren’t any books. But pretty much all children go to school, so if there's a library there and someone's encouraging them to attempt reading, that seems to me the best way of catching children who previously haven't had the opportunity.”

Joining up with Big Give, which matches funds raised through its platform pound for pound, is also a wonderful opportunity. “Big Give can double the impact,” she says. “It’s great that they're raising money for such a good cause. And what makes it even better is that it’s going to duplicate the amount raised, so there'll be double the amount of great books for children to read.”

Julia is a big believer in the power of storytelling © Rupert Barnes
Julia is a big believer in the power of storytelling

She is also a big fan of book clubs – and not just because they encourage literary discussion. The Stratford Literary Festival’s outreach programme has created a book club aimed at older readers who may be feeling lonely. 

“I'm in a book group,” she says. “It's lovely to read the book and talk about it, but it’s definitely a social thing as well. It’s a good tool to help with isolation.”

Reading, she says, should be done for pleasure, as a ‘tool for opening up the wonderful world of books and immersing yourself in another world. Stories help children understand their own feelings, understand themselves and just become more imaginative. I know myself, being a mother and grandmother, that enjoyment of sharing a story with a child.”

What makes Julia herself happy? “Apart from books, I love getting outside and walking and I'm very interested in flowers and fungi and the natural world. Music also makes me happy; I love playing the piano and I feel that puts me in touch with the composers whose work I love. I also love animals; we recently got two one-year-old cats.”

That fascination with the natural world was behind her latest children’s book, The Bowerbird. “My inspiration came from a David Attenborough programme about bowerbirds, because they are so fascinating. They build these amazing bowers and they go around searching for tempting objects to lure females in - and they are actually quite naughty sometimes as they steal other birds’ treasures.”

Children getting creative at a literary show© Rupert Barnes
Children getting creative at a literary show

Writing for children is, she says, a ‘lovely feeling, particularly since I'm a writer, because I enjoyed stories when I was little. What makes it nice now is I imagine that some of these children who enjoy my stories so much might go on to be the future writers of another generation.”

She also enjoys sharing her tales with her own younger generation, namely her grandchildren, of which she and husband Malcolm have nine. But she is determined not to foist her stories on them. “I read the books with my grandchildren if they choose them. I don’t make them, because I think I would get offended if they got off my knee and said they were bored of them!”

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