Although Julia Donaldson is best-known as the author of much-loved – and multi-award-winning – story books illustrated by Axel Scheffler, notably The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man, her work encompasses a wide range of writing and performance, from plays for primary school to young adult fiction, and from the Songbirds phonics story books to a BBC Maestro adults’ course on writing for children. As well as having a gift for wonderful storytelling, Donaldson has worked tirelessly to promote reading, especially through performing plays, and supporting libraries – a commitment rewarded with a CBE for services to literature in 2019.
Julia was born in 1948 and grew up in Hampstead, London, the eldest daughter in an academically and musically talented family. After attending local schools, she went to Bristol University to study Drama and French and soon found friends who shared her enthusiasm for singing and songwriting – among them her future husband, Malcolm Donaldson.
Together, Julia and Malcolm busked around Europe for a while and, back in the UK in the 1970s, performed with the Bristol Street Theatre, a company that put on simple plays in streets and council estates, encouraging children to participate. Julia also worked in publishing houses as a junior editor before studying for a postgraduate teaching degree and becoming an English teacher. She was still writing songs, especially for children, and after sending a selection to the BBC, they were performed on children’s television programmes. One of them – A Squash and a Squeeze – caught the eye of a publisher, who wanted to publish it with pictures and suggested an illustrator – and so began Julia’s long association with Axel Scheffler.
The first of the really big successes, The Gruffalo, was published in 1999 and won the Smarties Prize that year; many more bestsellers were to follow, but Donaldson never abandoned her enthusiasm for performing for children and finding ways to encourage their enjoyment of reading. During her two years as Children’s Laureate (2011–2012), she undertook a John o’ Groats to Lands End tour of libraries, acting her plays with local children and reading aloud at every stop – and she is still out there, writing, performing and promoting reading.