Zog writer Julia Donaldson: children addicted to electronic tablets? I blame the parents
Adults need to think about the example they are setting and get off their mobiles says the former children’s laureate
Julia Donaldson, the former children’s laureate and acclaimed writer of picture book favourites such as The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man, says parents need to take more responsibility for the growing use of tablet devices among the young.
Donaldson, whose book Zog has been animated as one of the centrepieces of the BBC Christmas TV schedules, cited adults ignoring children while on electronic devices as one of the things that worried her most about the future for youngsters.
Donaldson told RadioTimes.com: “I’m quite pessimistic about adults and the way people are always on their mobile phones.
“People often say 'do I think children use gadgets too much' but I’m more depressed when I see parents. You often see a parent with the child where the child is trying to get the parent's attention with the parent scrolling down and looking at Facebook. I often find that very depressing.
“I’m sorry you don’t see many people on the train reading books. You can’t read many books on those tiny little screens. I am sad you don’t see as many people reading books.”
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Recent research by Sheffield University found that pre-school children in the UK spend 1 hour 19 minutes per day on a tablet during the week and 1 hour 23 minutes at the weekend.
Other research has shown that increased use of electronic devices can be harmful for the very young. In 2017 a study by the University of Toronto and The Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto found that a daily dose of 30 minutes of screen time increased the risk of delayed speech by 49 per cent.
Donaldson’s book Zog – which she wrote with illustrations by her long term collaborator, the German born artist Axel Scheffler – airs on BBC1 on Christmas Day.
It tells the story of a dragon who befriends a princess called Pearl who would much rather be a doctor. It stars Lenny Henry as the narrator and Game of Thrones' Kit Harington as the Knight Sir Gadabout, with Patsy Ferran voicing Pearl. Tracey Ullman plays Zog’s teacher Madame Dragon.
The animation also fleshes out the storybook, adding extra scenes including a moment when Pearl is being given sewing lessons – and is shown to be practising surgical techniques on her teddy bear. She also has a governess – who is not in the first book – who would rather she practise flower-arranging rather than pursue her dreams of medicine.
Donaldson admitted that while she didn’t set out to write a feminist fable, it has been interpreted as such.
“Your underlying principles and ideas subconsciously come out in the stories,” she said, adding that the feminist theme is also present in the book’s sequel Zog and the Flying Doctors in which the Princess is told by her Uncle the King that “Princesses can’t be doctors, silly girl”.
The writer, who was children’s laureate between 2011 and 2013, told RadioTimes.com: “I have received lots of letters from parents of girls saying it had a strong feminist message but I admit I didn’t write it with that in mind. Nowadays most children’s books' girls are quite feisty.
“It’s nice to have a whole variety. I don’t like the political correctness. I wouldn’t want to always depict women as feminist or career-minded. I think it’s different in a picture book. They are not really rounded characters. They get rounded by the illustrations but it’s more about the story and the patterning of it.”
Reflecting on her long career, Donaldson noted that her first readers are now aged around 30 if they read her first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, when it first came out in 1993.
She added: “I feel quite proud and happy that I’m doing what I’m doing and creating happiness at bedtime for parents and children and perhaps bringing parents and children closer together.
“I grew up with rhymes and stories and I hope with Axel I am bringing that to people. I am proud of that.”
Zog airs on BBC1 on Christmas Day at 4:50pm