Why Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler adaptations make the perfect Christmas telly

Ben Dowell - and his kids - are hooked on the work of this magical duo who have now become Christmas fixtures on BBC1. What is their secret?

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Parents across the country owe a huge debt to Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

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As anyone with small children will know, one of your main jobs is bedtime reading, but actually really really good books can be hard to find.

You want something interesting with variety, a classic story that is fun but not too frightening. Yet so many books are quite predictable – a shy character who finds their voice, a child who learns to smile or an animal (usually a rabbit) who keeps trying to tell his Mum or Dad how much she loves them (and how hard it is to read these tales at bedtime without putting on a cutesy voice).

With Donaldson and Scheffler you get none of this. You get the big stories, the big themes, but told with warmth, heart and intelligence by Donaldson, and beautifully drawn, with lustrously colourful illustrations by Scheffler.

The writer and illustrator team have lit up so many bedtimes with their fabulous books – The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, a Squash and a Squeeze, The Snail and the Whale and more recently Stick Man (to name but a few).

And the BBC is making this Stick Man their latest Christmas centerpiece, with tonight’s showing of the half-hour animation based on this brilliant book. It follows on from the BBC Christmas adaptations of The Gruffalo, followed last year by The Gruffalo’s Child. But Stick Man is perhaps the most Christmassy of all their books to get the small-screen treatment.

Narrated by Jennifer Saunders, it tells the story of Stick Man (voiced by Martin Freeman) and his family, a tight-knit unit of sticks whose domestic idyll is rudely upset when Papa Stick ventures a bit too far from the family tree and is subject to all sorts of trials and abuses (see picture, below).

He is used as a cricket bat, a mast for a sandcastle, a bat and a pencil before his life is threatened when he ends up on a fireplace.

Who will save him? Well there are millions of children out there who know the answer (which I shan’t spoil).

But what is it about these two that works so brilliantly? 

For one thing they are so distinctive. You can spot an Axel Scheffler illustration a mile off – clear and precise and colourful, they manage to be both detailed but also fun – other-worldly but also, thanks to their precision and vivacity, grounded in real life. 

They have also created their own recognisable world, Donaldson (pictured) with her distinctive rhymed stories, Scheffler with his fabulous artwork.

A sign that they have created own world is also helped by the fact that they now hide Gruffalo images in their books – whether disguised as a fish, a Christmas decoration or a cuddly toy. The idea for Stick Man also was planted in Donaldson’s mind after Scheffler drew the Gruffalo’s Child holding a stick doll. It’s one book bleeding into another, tapping into a sense of the Donaldson/Scheffler world as a family, a universe.

Also Donaldson tells her tales in rhymes, an old-fashioned form of storytelling that is comforting but also ageless. And there is no pat moralising. Stick Man and The Gruffalo are basic adventure stories of the little man (well, mouse and stick) that overcomes the bullies against all the odds. They tackle universal themes – of getting lost and found – but don’t preach or shove their messages down your throat.

Also they are really funny as well. And exciting. Stick Man and The Gruffalo (like so many of their books) are adventures (with happy endings) but ones involving jeopardy and danger. The message that even a stick has value (well, more than that, a wife and three stick kids) is told within an exciting narrative. So feast your eyes on Stick Man on Christmas Day. It’s brilliant. And so are the people that created him.

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Stick Man airs on BBC1 on Christmas Day at 4.45pm