Julia Donaldson: ‘I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to be an actress’

The Gruffalo author looks back on a colourful life so far in a Letter to My Younger Self

I was quite an immature teenager, not worldly wise, even though I grew up London in the swinging Sixties. I wasn’t an angsty teenager, I was intelligent and quite competitive, the kind of person who always came top in English. I went to an all-girls school so I didn’t have a boyfriend though I’d sometimes go to parties and try to wriggle out of the clutches of boys who just wanted a quick snog. I did have a huge crush on Mick Jagger. I preferred The Beatles’ music, but Mick Jagger was sexier. I kept a teenage diary and there’s lots about him in it. My friend and I would find clever ploys to try to get to meet him. I remember once we hung outside the Stones’ concert and I tried to convince the security guard I’d met Mick Jagger at a party in Hampstead and I’d lent an LP from him. I persuaded them to take a note to his dressing room and they came back and said, he does remember you but he’s just about to go on stage so he can’t chat now. I was a very naive girl.

I was quite close to both my parents and even more to my sister. There was also my aunt and uncle and my grandmother – we lived in the same house but on different floors. We would meet up with granny for Sunday lunch and play Monopoly with my aunt and uncle. My father had polio, he was in a wheelchair. And so it was nice, looking back, that we had other adults around who could get involved in a more physical kind of activity. My parents were very, very good parents. They weren’t at all meddling, interfering or pushy. Mostly they just let my sister and me get on with it. We’d go walking through Hampstead Heath, and across the city – we were quite lively, and had a kind of freedom parents these days might not allow.

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Donaldson with her grandmother on the wall of her family home in Hampstead, North London

I didn’t want to be a writer at first, I wanted to be an actress. I was very stagestruck because when I was a bit younger I’d understudied the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic in a star-studded production. So I could spout iambic pentameters, which must where my flair for metre and rhythm comes from. That was my ambition, to go to drama school. I wasn’t very glamorous but I was interested in clothes, I wasn’t frumpy. I was quite inspired by the actresses in that production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Judi Dench and Barbara Leigh-Hunt.

I gave up my acting ambitions quite gradually. I didn’t get into drama school so I applied to university instead. After I graduated I was very much with Malcolm [her husband, a doctor who became her regular musical partner] and I didn’t want to go travelling round the country trying to get into rep companies. So I did kind of abandon my acting ambitions. But all of that spirit got channelled into performing because when I met Malcolm we went busking together a lot, and then we started performing in folk clubs and festivals. It’s very satisfying because performance has largely come back into my life again. Although I’m regarded primarily as a writer, I probably spend more of my time devising shows based on the books. And although I’m not acting Lady Macbeth or anything like that, I am actually on the stage playing to thousands of people. I think my teenage self would be quite impressed with that.

What would surprise the younger me most would probably be that I ended up being best known for writing children’s books. I’d probably be disappointed with that because I’d rather have become Helen Mirren. My sister and I would take the neighbouring little children to the zoo sometimes, and when I was in my 20s I ran a drama workshop for five- to eight-year-olds so I’ve had quite a bit of experience with children. But I knew I didn’t want to rush into having my own. I wanted to enjoy my freedom. My sister had children very young and I could see how much they changed your life. I wrote a lot of songs for adults when we sang in the clubs but there was more of a market for the children’s songs, that’s what I could make money from, so that’s how it all evolved.

Malcolm and I met through his university roommate and went busking together. When my girlfriend and I were in Paris studying he came over and we went busking there too. So we were absolute bosom buddies. But it wasn’t till I was back in Bristol when it developed into a real romance. Which was lovely. I think I would tell my teenage self, don’t go running after Mick Jagger, it’s actually much more satisfying and exciting to have a romance with someone you already know. You don’t have to pretend you’re something you’re not. He’s always been a part of my shows and he comes on all the foreign tours. We’ve played all around the world, Australia, Bermuda, China, India, Korea, Singapore, South Africa.

The Gruffalo sat on another publisher’s desk for months. During that time I’d go to schools and read the story and ask them to draw pictures of what they thought the Gruffalo would look like. One looked like an alien, one looked like a robot, but they all had purple prickles and everything else I mention in the story. Then Axel [Scheffler] came along and he did a few sketches. One looked like a wild boar, one a bit too much like an ogre. But one of them I saw and I knew very, very quickly that was my Gruffalo and now I just couldn’t imagine him any other way. Axel has added so much humour and characterisation to my stories. I am eternally grateful to him.

It wouldn’t be true to say that children’s writers must all love all children. But I think it’s true of me and maybe of a lot of children’s writers that I do feel close to my childhood soul. I don’t feel a huge gulf from the child or teenager I was. Some people feel, oh my God how could I have been like that, but I don’t. I absolutely adore my grandchildren and I’m finding it really hard now with lockdown. I have four girls and four boys, and they’re still quite young. I was excited to see them after getting back from a tour in Australia, and now I still can’t see them. I can’t have a cuddle or tell them a bedside story.

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2009: Donaldson with Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler at a 10th anniversary signing in London

If I could have one last conversation it would be with my parents. I wish my father had talked more about being in a German prisoner of war camp for five years. And I wish I could talk to my mother about her mother because my grandmother was a fascinating, captivating woman. She had this affair with Neville Cardus who was a very famous Guardian cricket and music writer. And I think she played the piano like I play the piano, and wrote some children’s stories which weren’t published. I’d love to quiz my mother all about her. But it’s just too late now.

If I could go back and re-live one time in my life it would be in Paris in 1969. I’d been busking with my girlfriend – we could only play a few chords on the guitar but we had dulcet voices and we always did quite well on the Champs-Élysées. Then suddenly Malcolm, who was just a friend then, arrived and that evening we went out busking in the Place de la Contrescarpe in the Latin Quarter. And I just remember crowds gathering around and suddenly he was singing all these beautiful songs by The Who and from the shows. It was such an exciting, exhilarating moment, and we were still so young, not even yet in our prime. I think the best moments in your life are when you’re totally in that moment, not wondering about what you’ll think of that moment years later. And that was absolutely one of those.

Julia Donaldson and Friends is a free weekly broadcast featuring stories, songs and drawing. The latest book is Zog and the Flying Doctors. It’s on Thursdays at 4pm on Facebook and here

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