Acting out The Gruffalo’s Child

Children's laureate Julia Donaldson knows how to ignite a love of literature - just act out the stories

When my sister and I were children we never watched television on Christmas Day. Instead, along with our fun-loving aunt and uncle and slightly more reluctant parents and granny, we would play acting games – such as charades and even Murder in the Dark.

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Ever since playing those childhood games I’ve loved seeing stories being dramatised – and not only when they are done as beautifully as The Gruffalo’s Child animation this Christmas. I’ve seen a preview of it and despite knowing the story so well – I wrote it after all – I was entranced.

I loved the atmospheric snowy wood and the endearing characterisation of the G’s Child herself, voiced by Shirley Henderson, whose Scottish accent is perfect for “Aha! Oho! Tracks in the snow!”

On the morning of the preview, Axel Scheffler and I visited my old primary school, New End in Hampstead, London. There we acted out the same story in a much more homely way. The snow was some sheets (sneakily borrowed from my hotel) and the tree was drawn by Axel on a flip chart.

He and I acted the two Gruffalos, and three delightful children were the Fox, the Owl and the Snake. The costumes were quite basic: headbands and masks, with a sock puppet for the snake.

The mouse was cut out of cardboard, and at the cue “out came the moon”, someone turned out the lights and shone a torch, casting an impressive Big Bad Mouse shadow on the whiteboard behind.

One of my aims as children’s laureate is for children – at school and at home – to act out stories. It comes so naturally to them, being an extension of their own play. Taking roles helps them identify with the characters and can be a great way into books for those who have few in their homes. It’s also very good for their self-confidence.

I started acting with schoolchildren soon after the publication of my first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, which is about an old lady whose house is too small. I was invited to “talk about it” in a school.

This sounded rather scary to me, till I hit on the idea of arranging the children in a circle to be the house, with two of them forming an arch and five others taking the roles of the wise old man and the animals who are brought in by the little old lady (me). They obviously enjoyed it, and I’ve been carrying on in that vein ever since.

Now that I do a lot of bigger events, in theatres and book festivals, I spend more of my time working out how to adapt stories from page to stage than I do writing them. My husband, Malcolm, plays guitar and takes roles, often along with my sister Mary. Many of the stories wouldn’t work without audience participation.

So in Zog, which is about a dragon school, three children from the audience come on stage to be Zog’s fellow pupils. In Freddie and the Fairy, where a deaf fairy mishears a child’s wishes, children mime all sorts of desired and undesired pets, including a bat and a louse.

I now have a room at home devoted to props, with the Highway Rat’s head jostling for position with the Stick Man puppets. I’m in danger of running out of shelf space, so it’s fortunate that some stories can be acted out with no props at all.

The stage shows are enjoyable but, maybe even more, I like watching children perform something of their own devising. That’s one of the reasons I’ve started visiting lots of libraries. In these library sessions, before I embark on my books, an invited class of seven-year-olds performs something to me.

On two recent occasions I had tears rolling down my cheeks when some children recited poems and others acted out The Gruffalo in a mixture of speech and sign language. As well as being a huge fan of libraries and drama, I’m keen to promote signed stories for deaf children, so it felt as if everything was coming together.

Next year I’m planning a John o’Groats to Land’s End libraries tour. It’s an attempt to celebrate libraries, which in many areas are currently suffering cuts and closures. Along with thousands of other campaigners, I see these as being a threat to the whole population and, in particular, to the children who are the adult readers of our future.

But first comes Christmas. I won’t be recommending everyone to turn off the TV and play charades, as of course I want lots of children to see The Gruffalo’s Child. But I’m hoping that afterwards they’ll be raiding cupboards for sheets and torches, and cutting out mouse puppets.

And if we get a white Christmas again, I hope they’ll be outside hunting the Big Bad Mouse and chanting “Aha! Oho! Tracks in the snow!” – preferably in Scottish accents.

The Gruffalo’s Child airs tomorrow at 6:30pm on BBC1 and BBC1 HD.

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