Puku affiliate, Lynn Joffe, musician, author of the Pitterpat the Crazee Caterpillar books and Brand Ambassador for the DBE’s Read to Lead campaign, speaks to the world’s biggest seller of children’s stories in the UK, past Children’s Laureate (2011-2013), Julia Donaldson.

As the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation launch the new puku.co.za website on World Literacy Day, 8th September 2017, world-acclaimed author, Julia Donaldson shares the magic of Africa by spilling the beans on The Ugly Five…

8 September 2017

I first met Julia Donaldson at Exclusive Books in Melrose Arch in January 2016. A natural performer and musician – Donaldson was a singer-songwriter for decades before she turned to writing – her words and verse at that time were issued forth in an entertaining aural cascade for parents and children alike.
I also lurked in the gods at the Linder Auditorium where an enthralled young audience recited every single word in tandem with Julia’s stage antics, but little did we suspect that coming to South Africa would be the catalyst for her new work.
While Julia was on safari with her husband, Malcolm, she created a classic story-poem about Africa’s very own Ugly Five. I caught up with Julia and her illustrator, Axel Scheffler, by telephone to London, to speak about their funny and heart-warming new book.

‘The Ugly Five’ by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Lynn Joffe:
I believe your inspiration began on safari when you saw a wildebeest for the first time?

Julia Donaldson:
We’d actually seen a lot of wildebeest already.  We knew they were allegedly ugly – they are a bit ill-proportioned, I suppose – but my husband said they’d got rather a bad press and he thought they were strangely noble.  That’s when the ranger said, ‘I hate to tell you this, Malcolm, but the wildebeest is one of the ugly five.’
I immediately pricked up my ears and said, ‘Who are the other ugly five?’
I found out they consist of the spotted hyena, the lappet-faced vulture, the warthog and the marabou stork. So, the ugly five is an actual thing like the big five, I didn’t actually make it up.

Lynn Joffe:
When the spark happened on that safari you said by the time you got back you almost had the whole piece outlined. How did that work from a creative point of view?

Julia Donaldson:
It’s not like it’s a very complicated story, but nevertheless, it doesn’t often happen that way. Usually I get the germ of an idea; I might think I’d like to do a story about a dragon schoolteacher or something, but it might be months before I figure out exactly what’s going to happen. In this case, I got the whole story straight away, but then it was much more difficult when it came to actually writing it, because I then had to research all the animals and actually, they’re ugly in quite similar ways, because these mammals all have big forequarters and sloping backs and rather too big heads and it’s quite hard to try and make them very distinctive in the verse. So, it was quite a job actually writing it.

Lynn Joffe:
Do you always imbue your animals with human qualities? Are they little monsters in your mind that become human? Is it a conscious choice?

Julia Donaldson:
I think I’m just following a tradition of fables, like the tale of the hare and the tortoise. The hare is a hasty person who’s naturally able and doesn’t try hard enough and the tortoise is a slow person who gets there in the end. So, it’s the same with most of my stories. I suppose in this story it’s more like Hilaire Belloc – just having fun with words, finding ways of describing ugliness as best as I could. It wasn’t so much a matter of their individual characters.

Lynn Joffe:
You write in rhyme, a form which children pick up first as ‘heard word’ and then progress to reading aloud and eventually read for themselves. In your choruses, when the characters sing, ‘I’m the Ugly One…’ and then ‘We’re the Ugly Two…’ and so on, I almost feel as if there’s music in the words. Do you have a song in your head already?

Julia Donaldson:
It’s not just in my head, we’ve actually performed it.  And when the babies sing, it’s part of the song too and it soars up towards the end.

Lynn Joffe:
You say that the songs already exist… When the stories come to you, do they come to you with the music? Do the tunes happen afterwards for you? Or at the same time?

Julia Donaldson:
The music happens after the words – I was a songwriter for decades before I wrote any books, so song is my natural medium.

Lynn Joffe:
Is the music going to be sold with the book? Or is it a separate project?

Julia Donaldson:
Eventually there will be audio available, but it’s funny because lots of my books have songs, and so many parents have said, ‘We’ve got our own tune,’ and I thought it would be quite fun at some stage, to have a CD with all the different tunes that the parents have made up…

Lynn Joffe:
I think that’s the appeal of your work to both parents and children; there’s something else in there for the reader who has to read this to their kids over and over again. Are you conscious of that when you write? Do you write for the parents as well?

Julia Donaldson:
To be honest, I’m just writing the story. I’m not consciously thinking about the audience at all. So, some books end up a bit younger and some a bit older and so it’s really up to the publishers to market to the different ages. I must say, I get a kick out of writing stories that I know that grownups are going to read as well, because I think it must be a bit galling just to write for 9-year-olds. They’re reading and the parents don’t know what it’s about, so I like the fact that the parents are familiar with the stories.

Lynn Joffe:
Question to you, Axel, as the illustrator – does Julia always come to you with the ideas? Do you ever brainstorm? How much input do you have into the story itself?

Axel Scheffler:
I have no input at all.  She comes with the story finished and then I see it. We never sit together and think about the books. We only met after the first book was published. It’s been a very separate process and it worked very well.

Julia Donaldson:
I think it’s the case with most authors and illustrator partnerships, unless they’re husband and wife or something like that. Everyone was a bit disappointed when they found that out. They kind of imagined that we’re sitting over brewing cups of coffee or swigging back red wine. I don’t think it would be fair for me to interfere with what Axel is doing and I wouldn’t like him to tell me what I had to write…

Lynn Joffe:
And how does it come to you when you’ve said something in words and he sends back these creatures of your imagination; how does that feel?

Julia Donaldson:
It’s great with Axel because I’m familiar with his work. It’s always very hard when you have a new illustrator and you do, of course, have a picture in your head and how they see it isn’t going to be the same.

Lynn Joffe:
When you do conceive the book, I know it isn’t finished by the two of you. In The Ugly Five, the text is separate to the illustrations – is that a deliberate decision from a layout point of view?

Axel Scheffler:
There is sometimes text on illustrations and we made the decisions with the designer, the art director and the editor and publisher to give this book a different look, because it is a different book… more like a poem, I find.

Axel Scheffler © Liam Jackson

Julia Donaldson:
I’d really wanted that for a long time, but normally my books contain more complicated stories and you kind of need little vignettes, etcetera, but because this is a patterned poem or song, it just lends itself to that classic look which I really love. I’m really, really pleased with that.

Lynn Joffe:Do the two of you ever clash on the vision of the stories and pictures? Is there ever any conflict creatively?

Axel Scheffler:
I know that Julia often has different ideas of what the characters look like, but we don’t have direct contact.

Julia Donaldson:
I think initially I did see the animals as a bit more exaggeratedly ugly, but Axel is quite keen that they should retain their nobility.

Axel Scheffler:
I did feel it wasn’t really my style to make them grotesque caricatures of the real animals. I wanted them to be more natural and they always look different anyway.

Lynn Joffe:
Julia
, how long did it take from that moment in the safari park to publication?

Julia Donaldson:
That was last January and it was just published now, so, a year and a half.

Lynn Joffe:
So, it seems that what the publishing process allows you to do, is focus on your true talent on your creative writing and Axel on your illustrations and the business side is left to a veritable factory of people?

Axel Scheffler:
Yes, it’s a very complicated process because we have very high print runs so it is logistically quite a big enterprise, but I actually only took five to six weeks to do the actual pictures.

Lynn Joffe:
Wow. That’s some kind of deadline.

Axel Scheffler:
Yeah, there is a deadline, but I was very late. Always when it’s late, there’s the pressure of a few weeks.

Lynn Joffe:
Are your books going to be translated into any South African languages?

Julia Donaldson:
I know it’s going into Afrikaans… and perhaps into Zulu and Xhosa…?

Lynn Joffe:
Do you have any input into the way that the poem is rendered?  For example, South African languages don’t rhyme the same way as English; they have more of an internal rhyme with assonance and rhythm and the like…

Julia Donaldson:
Look, the Gruffalo is in 72 languages. If I had to spend all my time pouring over the languages and overseeing the rhyming, I don’t think I’d have any time left to write.

The Gruffalo translated in New Zealand

I think some of the translations rhyme, some don’t, some probably have other features. For the Maori edition in New Zealand, their language has only a certain amount of consonants, so they couldn’t name the Gruffalo ‘The Gruffalo’, because they didn’t have certain letters, so they called it Te Tanguruhau. There are many challenges for different translators. Some languages I can vaguely speak… I can recite some of the books in French, German and Italian and Scottish as well.

Lynn Joffe:
I see that you’re very involved in animal conservation as part of the heart of the book. Any plans to come out to see us again?

Julia Donaldson:
I’d love to!
We’re starting a partnership with Tusk which is a charity which works on conservation of animals. They’re hosting their Tusk Awards in Cape Town in October this year, so we’re helping promote Tusk alongside the book and we’re getting some events with them next year. We’re hoping that The Ugly Five spreads the word and gets people more interested in animal conservation.

Lynn Joffe:
You have an educational piece at the end of the book that speaks about the Big Five, the Ugly Five, the Shy Five. Do you have any plans to do a sequel?

Julia Donaldson:
I was looking at it the other day. I didn’t have much input into that; it was really the editor’s idea to have those pages at the back. I think when I’m writing I tend to want to do something different from the book before, so if I haven’t had a villain for a long time I’ll write a book with a villain. I don’t think that straight away I’d write another book about South African animals, but it is something to think about in the future.

Lynn Joffe:
How many books do you write? What kind of pace to you keep?

Julia Donaldson:
Well, I suppose I’ve had four major books published… I spend much more time doing interviews like this and putting on shows and presentations. We’re about to do some performances at the Leicester Square Theatre in London so I’m staying in a hotel in London. Perhaps I’m more of a performer and dramatiser than a writer?

Lynn Joffe:
Are The Ugly Five songs going to be part of that new show?

Julia Donaldson:
We actually did some performances at a safari park in Scotland and there was a vulture. Not a lappet-faced vulture, but there was a vulture called Kevin…

Lynn Joffe:
Safari parks in Scotland? Good grief!

Julia Donaldson:
There’s a few. Not at all on the scale of South Africa. More like a big zoo with fields for the animals, it’s not that they’re actually roaming wild and unfenced.

Lynn Joffe:
It’s been an honour,  a privilege and an inspiration to be in direct touch with you. I was at your concerts and shows in Johannesburg and saw how children and parents alike are enthralled by your personality. The presence of a great author on stage – with a great book – is something I’ll never forget. I’m sure South Africa can’t wait to get their hands on their own copy of The Ugly Five.

The Ugly Five, the new picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, is out in September 2017

Published by Alison Green Books, imprint of Scholastic

Image: Lynn Joffe