“like a Zen master who has used his antagonists’ aggression against them”

Oliver Bennett wrote for The Independent of 1.10.13:

“At a recent children’s party in Islington – that London borough being the home of the bien-pensant parent – there was no dodgy magician, tragic clown, or even musical chairs. These would have been far too cheesy and competitive. No, this modish mum and dad instead created a puppet performance of The Gruffalo. Of the 20 or so children present, all of them knew every word and chanted them in unison, a sound as angelic to their parents as it must have been demonic to the neighbours.

It may be that you haven’t come across The Gruffalo yet. If so, then you almost certainly don’t have a child under the age of eight years old. Written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, this cultish book was first published in 1999. Shortly afterwards it was dubbed “a modern classic”, scooped the Smarties Gold prize (the equivalent of the Booker prize for children’s literature), took the Blue Peter award for the best book to read aloud and the Experian Big Three prize. It became – and remains – one of the UK’s best-selling picture books.

Five years on, it is soaring with unstoppable momentum. A play has been made of it and, lately, a film of the play, from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company – it currently sells direct from Really Useful’s website, and will be distributed this Christmas. Several television companies and a Hollywood film production house have recently tried to grab some Gruffalo action. There is merchandise such as jigsaw puzzles and toys, even though the publisher hasn’t truly put its mind to this cash cow yet. Last year, the book passed its millionth sale and it is fair to say that The Gruffalo has entered the canon of best-loved children’s books that includes AA Milne’s Winnie The Pooh, Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hatand Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are – a book with which it has something in common.

The Gruffalo has a kind of folkloric depth: pick it up, and it’s as if you’ve read it before. “A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood,” it begins, and, as the heroic rodent walks he saves himself from being devoured by a fox, an owl and a snake by spinning them a story about a menacing monster with which he is about to have lunch: “He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.” The mouse’s would-be predators leave him unharmed, but then he meets a real and hungry gruffalo – the imagination made flesh – ready to eat him. The quick-witted mouse boasts to the dim and aggressive beast that he is the “scariest creature in this wood”, and takes the Gruffalo back to meet the predators, who run in the face of the monster. The Gruffalo believes the mouse is scaring them, and flees. And, like a Zen master who has used his antagonists’ aggression against them, the mouse sits and eats a nut. Scheffler’s pictures are masterly, and it all rhymes, a rhythmic, read-aloud kid’s romp that gathers pace like a rocket.

Michael Rosen, the children’s author and broadcaster, loves it. “It’s the metrical perfection of Dr Seuss combined with a wonderful story,” he says. “It fits together like a crystal, with all the facets in harmony.”

Kate Wilson, the director of children’s books at Macmillan, publishers of The Gruffalo, says: “It works really well as a shared experience: adults like it as much as children. The Gruffalo is scary without being terrifying, and has great detail. I love that poisonous wart on the end of its nose.” The children’s book expert Nicholas Tucker, a lecturer at Sussex University, says characters like the Gruffalo have a special resonance with children. “Writing about animals is always popular, and to come up with a new monster with a great name is really skilled, particularly as the monster is scary but also has a cuddly nature.”

The Gruffalo has been translated into 26 languages. “As soon as we read The Gruffalo, we saw dramatic potential in it,” says Toby Mitchell, of the Tall Stories theatre company, which has its own production. “It’s very simple and very concise. We’re faithful to the book, and also appeal directly to the audience, who all know it off by heart.” The play is now travelling to the US and Canada.

At her home in Glasgow, The Gruffalo‘s author, Julia Donaldson, is delighted and even a little bemused by the success of her warty beast. “Sometimes I feel the Gruffalo owns me,” she says. “It’d be lovely if people mentioned my other books.” Donaldson has also written The Snail and the Whale, Room on the Broom, Monkey Puzzle and more, several also illustrated by Scheffler. But The Gruffalo is her magnum opus; her Sgt Pepper, her Ulysses…”

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