Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson is the JK Rowling of picture books. Best known for The Gruffalo, which has been translated into 48 languages and sold six and a half million copies, her follow-up Room on the Broom is another big hit with both adults and toddlers, and is currently top of the bestseller lists in America. No wonder the stars were queuing up to help voice the animated version that will be shown on BBC1 this Christmas, among them Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Martin Clunes, Simon Pegg, Timothy Spall and David Walliams.
But Room on the Broom isn’t just a captivating tale of a witch, a cat and a broom it’s also the closest the 64-year-old Donaldson has come to writing an autobiography.
“I wanted to do a book about a woman because all the characters in The Gruffalo are blokes,” explains Donaldson. “And I made my witch scatty because I’m very scatty. In school I was always getting summoned by the head teacher: ‘Julia! Your bus pass has been handed in yet again!’ I was always dropping things and losing things, and I still do. So the witch is very much modelled on me.”
So she was a little put out when Axel Scheffler, who has illustrated Donaldson’s books for 20 years, drew an old crone. “I clearly remember the first sketch – who was this old hag with a wart on her nose? I did say to my editor, ‘Could you ask Axel to make her a bit younger and make her nose a bit smaller?’”
The author may have had reservations, but her readers didn’t. Room on the Broom has sold two and a half million copies, inspired a West End musical and now a short film that sticks scrupulously to Donaldson’s words – with one exception.
“I changed one word. The book starts ‘The witch had a cat and a very tall hat’ and the film-makers asked if I could write an extra couplet to introduce her. I said, ‘Well, no, because everybody knows the book.’” Eventually, a compromise was reached: instead of “The witch…” the animation will begin “A witch…”
Donaldson’s stories may be deceptively effortless to read, but they are meticulously crafted. However, that’s not the reason she put her foot down. The real reason is also why she turned down countless offers from Hollywood to turn The Gruffalo into a feature-length film, and from TV execs eager to make a 50-episode series: because many of the children will know Room on the Broom by heart, and the magic will be spoilt if the story isn’t as they recall.
And it’s not just her young readers who would be disappointed. “The lovely thing about picture books – as a writer of them – is you’re very appreciated by adults because the parent reads the books to the child.”
This may explain why picture books are enjoying a golden age at a time when the rest of the industry is struggling. “The market is so difficult for books because of Kindles and online bookshops,” says Donaldson, “but picture books have survived because they’re lovely objects, and lovely to share.”
Room on the Broom is on Christmas Day at 4:35pm on BBC1