Stick Man creators Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler on producing a best selling children’s book

They sell more books than JK Rowling does. What's their secret to success?

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It’s not just the Queen who gets her own TV show on Christmas Day. Every year since 2009 – starting with The Gruffalo, and followed by The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom – BBC1 has broadcast an animated Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler story on Christmas Day (second helpings were shown when an original production wasn’t on offer). This year there is a new Donaldson/Scheffler treat for Christmas Day. And it’s a corker. It’s the turn of Stick Man to make his television debut.

Donaldson, one of the world’s most successful children’s authors, is the queen of the picture book, the Roald Dahl of the reception class. It’s estimated that she has sold more than £90 million-worth of books in this country alone. She’s the only author to have annual UK sales of more than £10 million for five years in a row (even JK Rowling hasn’t managed that).

Stick Man is a delight, thanks not only to Donaldson’s words but the instantly recognisable illustrations of Scheffler. The TV version, which boasts a starry cast, with the voices of Martin Freeman, Hugh Bonneville and Rob Brydon, is utterly faithful to the original and should be on every family’s watchlist.

So how will Donaldson watch it herself this Christmas Day? She’ll be cuddled up on the sofa with three of her grandchildren in front of the telly. “It’s become a Christmas tradition,” she smiles, “and long may it continue.”

 

So what’s the secret of writing a bestselling book for young children? 

CROSS YOUR FINGERS FOR A LUCKY BREAK

Donaldson started her career writing songs for children’s programmes such as Play Away in the 1970s. One or two were included on BBC children’s records. And then, out of the blue one day in the early 1990s, the phone rang – with a question about a song that she had written nearly 20 years earlier.

Donaldson recalls: “It was a woman who’d played the tapes in her car when her children were growing up. She was now working for a publisher and looking for stories to make into picture books. She asked: ‘Did you write a song called A Squash and a Squeeze? And would you allow us to make this song into a book?’ I tried to act very cool, but then I put the phone down and just leapt around the room. And that was the start of my children’s books.”

FIND THE RIGHT PARTNER

Donaldson and Scheffler have produced more than 20 books together, including The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, Zog and The Smartest Giant in Town. It’s a partnership – like that between Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake – that seems, in retrospect, to have been heaven sent.

It was Donaldson’s publisher who initially brought her and Scheffler together – but these days it’s the publisher’s job to keep them apart.

“We don’t even speak on the phone,” reveals Donaldson. “There’s no contact at all while we’re working on a book, except via the editor or the publisher. We’ve always done it that way – I don’t know whether it would work otherwise.”

START DOODLING

Donaldson begins all her stories by doodling in a notebook, before she knows what the character will look like. Before she saw Scheffler’s drawings for Stick Man, “I’d imagined he would look much more like a stick,” she says. “I thought it would be hard to draw him with big arms.”

FIX THE CHARACTER

Donaldson got her inspiration from one of Scheffler’s illustrations for one of her earlier books. “Axel had shown the Gruffalo’s Child holding a little stick doll. And I loved that idea that a stick could be a sword for a knight or a hook for a bag or an arm for a snowman. So that got me thinking.” The result? Stick Man is the story of, yes, a man made out of stick. One day, quite by accident, he finds himself miles from home (“the family tree”, geddit?), separated from his “Stick Lady Love” and their three stick children. A string of dangerous encounters (for example, with a swan trying to build a nest, a carol singer looking for some firewood) leads him further and further into peril, until finally… well, let’s just say that our hero doesn’t come to a sticky end.

MAKE IT RHYME

On page after page of Donaldson’s Stick Man notebook, there are lists of rhymes: plenty that made it into the book (“goes for a jog, beware of the dog”, “a spade in his hand, beware of the sand”) plus many that did not. “I’ve got all sorts of rhyming couplets here – ‘I don’t want to bat, I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to dig, I don’t want to write.’ That one didn’t make it into the final book.”

Similarly, Stick Man was never “a mast for a boat or a hook for a coat” (though the book does have him as a mast on a sandcastle). Nor was he a “peg for a tent”. Why? She cannot repeat a piece of wordplay from any of her other stories. “That’s the trouble,” she says. “Each book gets harder because you’ve done the rhymes before.”

PUT A TWIST IN THE TALE

The shape of so many stories is similar – from Shakespeare to an episode of Casualty. The central character is put into a position of jeopardy, and often only saved after a last-minute mishap that makes it looks like they’re totally doomed. “You need a good story with a satisfying ending. And a twist!” says Donaldson. “The reader might know where they’re going to end up, but not how they’re going to get there.”

WRITE UNTIL YOU DROP

Concentrate, don’t let anything distract you and just write, write, write. It took Donaldson a fortnight to write Stick Man. Not bad for a book that has, so far, sold two million copies around the world. 

Stick Man is on BBC1 at 4:45pm on Christmas Day

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