… and Axel too
Almost twenty years ago the world was introduced to an ugly, grumpy, hungry monster known as the Gruffalo. This lovable creature (along with Mouse, Fox, Snake and Owl) was brought to life by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler in what is considered to be the ‘most successful author/illustrator partnership in picture book publishing’. Adored by children and adults alike, The Gruffalo is an award-winning, modern classic and it’s protagonist has a place alongside other celebrated children’s book characters such as Paddington, Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Rabbit. It has sold over 13 million copies and been translated into over fifty languages.
Raising Jasper (now four years old), The Gruffalo quickly became a family favourite for bedtime stories. The rhyming couplets and repetitive verse have been memorised to heart and we can’t wait to share this endearing story with baby Jules as she grows. We have read the The Gruffalo hundreds of times, enjoyed the audio book and song, seen both the film and stage production, played with Gruffalo toys, puzzles and activity books, and explored the character trail through the ‘deep dark wood’. How else could we feed our Gruffalo addition? Why, meet the creators of course!
When the opportunity arose to meet Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler for a book signing there was no hesitation in getting tickets for the event. On a rainy autumn morning, Jasper and I made our way to an east London children’s venue to join the queue to meet our literary heroes. They were promoting their latest book, The Ugly Five, which Julia was inspired to write after going on a safari in South Africa. Julia and Axel have collaborated on over twenty books together, but most of the families I saw at the event were having their absolute favourites signed: The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Stickman. We chose to have the hardback book A Treasury of Songs signed for Jasper (because he already has all their stories!) and a luxury hardback edition of The Gruffalo signed for Jules.
Both Julia and Axel came across as quietly-spoken and humble despite their fame. We engaged in conversation with Julia, talked about South Africa and the wild animals, while Axel was busy drawing illustrations in our books. We happened to have Jasper’s class mascot with us that weekend, so Jasper showed Colin the Camel to Julia and she suggested we take a photo of her with the mascot so we could add that to Colin’s journal [the things you have to do as a parent!].
The best part of the book signing was seeing Axel draw the Gruffalo in Jules’s book. Jasper watched in awe when, as if by magic, a few lines and squiggles quickly formed an illustration of the enchanting monster. In the innocence of youth, Jasper gasped out loud “How does Axel know how to draw the Gruffalo?”. The gentle illustrator simply replied that he had drawn the Gruffalo so many hundreds of times that he ‘could do the drawing with his eyes shut’. And just when I was starting to fear that maybe Jasper was outgrowing The Gruffalo, he held my hand and we skipped through rain puddles back to the station, clutching our precious books, chanting “A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood / A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.”