Tag Archives: Julia Donaldson

Opening the Edinburgh International Book Festival

They must have guessed how much I’d like to sit in their garden, in the dark, under the tree lights, with a drink in my hand and feeling relaxed. Or else it was pure coincidence that the book festival invited me to their opening party last night, even allowing the Resident IT Consultant to join me there.

All I can say is I recommend it. And I don’t think you need a party; you can just go along one evening, preferably when it’s not raining, and sit down and relax, enjoying the string lights. And the literary aspects of hanging out at a book festival. Let’s not forget the books.

Fresh off the train I went over to claim my special badge, only to discover that press officer Frances has retired. I don’t blame her. Summers are nice to enjoy without working hard at running a press team. But how am I to Bookwitch without her? It’s quite a shock I tell you. Sarah who has taken over is excellent. But I am an old witch. Really old.

Anyway, I encountered my second favourite translator – Daniel Hahn – outside the bookshop, and we chatted. He was brave enough to be wearing shorts, on the grounds that it was warmer down south. Also happened across two of Son’s [other] friends, but didn’t dare throw myself on them. Mothers can be an embarrassment.

On my second foray into the book festival village I found Kate Leiper and Vivian French loitering outside, waiting to join the party. We picked up our free drinks tokens and after finding some seats in the ‘car park’ I sent the Resident IT Consultant over to the bar.

And then we sat. It was very comfortable. And whenever I saw someone I recognised, I had to tell him. Or at least the people he might reasonably be expected to know who they were. Ian Rankin. Julia Donaldson.

When we’d done enough sitting we tottered back to our hotel. (This can’t happen often. But once in a blue moon a hotel across the road is terribly useful.)

Fifteen and counting

Apart from a few years in my late teens, when I erroneously believed I had to read grown-up books – because I could, and because others did – I have not been too concerned with worthiness. I mean the worth others, who are not as wise as they think they are, put on certain books.

I read because I want to read, and I read what I want to read. Mostly.

One of the things I get to read these days is The Bookseller, which arrives second-hand in a pink envelope every week. A month ago I was struck by what Philip Jones said in his editor’s letter, in regard to The Official UK Top 50 list, which they published that week. He wrote ‘to view the Top 50 is to witness the trade as it is, rather than how it would like to be seen’.

The trade, and maybe us readers, like to think of this book business as something much worthier than some people might think of this Top 50 as being. But it is what it is. People buy books and the fifty most bought ones are the Top 50. The list is full of titles and authors I, and many other people, or so I imagine, have heard of. It’s not a list of inaccessible works. It’s light and fun, and I say this despite a certain DW having two books in the top 15. Because it’s what people buy.

Richard Osman tops the list, and somewhere towards the bottom we find Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, but as this is a list of everything, there is no shame in that.

In fact, if we can move on to the Top 30 Children’s Illustrators of 2021, also in the Bookseller, I was pleased to see that Axel Scheffler tops it, with Tony Ross merely in second place. Now, I don’t mind Tony at all. It’s just the company he keeps, which is why I’d rather see Axel selling better.

It’s quite interesting really, as the list has many illustrators I know [of], but also a few I don’t. And many of them are classics, so not exactly new for 2021, but proving that a good picture book will sell and sell.

That’s what we like here at Bookwitch Towers. I was given a picture book for Christmas. I have read very few of the Top 50, but I believe I can say I have a relationship with a good number of the books and their authors, one way or another. And I’m in good company. Lots of people bought these books, despite snobs wanting us to want other books.

It’s February 6th again. Bookwitch continues slowly on her way. She’s fifteen today, and unlike that other teenager she was many years ago, she knows what she likes.

And, this is quite embarrassing; I knew I needed cream for something today – which caused some concern when Waitrose turned out to have no cream whatsoever on Saturday – but I couldn’t remember why. I do now. It was for a celebratory something or other on this birthday. It will taste better with cream. Luckily M&S had some.

Gruffalos, Conjurors and Teeny Weeny Genies

I caught most of Nick Sharratt’s post-breakfast drawing session this morning. It was seahorses and jellyfish and catfish and dogfish. He – and his red and white shirtsleeves – made it look really easy to draw.

It is the kind of thing you get online with the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year. And yes, it’s online, so not ‘real’, but you only have to crawl out of bed and make it as far as the computer…

Then I backtracked to a watch-again event from Saturday morning, Gruffalos, Conjurors and Teeny Weeny Genies, with Julia Donaldson, Nick Sharratt, and Axel Scheffler.

For her 22nd bookfest Julia sat at home and read from her books, which included a reading in the garden, assisted by her physically distanced grandchildren.

Nick, wearing a fetching lilac-starred shirt this time, read one of his own books, before teaching the audience to draw a book like that themselves. I think I could do that! A carrot shape here, and a butterbean shape there. It’s not hard. And then he put on his conjuror’s hat.

Over to Axel Scheffler, Julia’s mostest illustrator, in his sunny garden, with what looked suspiciously like bird poo on the table he was using. He showed us how he drew Zog and the Flying Doctors, who right now have to wear PPE. We got to see the doctors both with and without their protective clothing. Zog, being a dragon, apparently is not believed to need protection, even against a virus.

And to finish off, Julia got out her Gruffalo, which she has acted at countless events for over twenty years. This time her sweet-singing husband Malcolm was roped in to act all the parts except the mouse which was played by Julia. They were in the woods. Well, you would be with a Gruffalo, wouldn’t you?

It was actually quite fun. This is the advantage with online filmed events; because in Charlotte Square you can’t suddenly go out into any woods, nor can Malcolm switch so seamlessly between being a fox or an owl or a snake. That mouse really saw him off.

So yes, this was quite entertaining, even for old witches. (But the four minute wait at the beginning, primarily seeing the names of the – very important – sponsors, was possibly on the long side for your typical three-year-old?)

You’ll never catch up

I appreciate being able to go first.

And I completely trust the Gruffalo.

Thank you for the space

I thought it felt roomier on the broom!

Thank you to Axel Scheffler for the extra airy broom he’s provided me with for the present situation. Besides, I am someone who is happiest with much emptiness around me. Not completely, you understand, but enough room for the swinging of cats, and peace of mind.

The Gruffalo is 20

Offspring were always too old for the Gruffalo. I’m quite relieved to discover this fact, as I tended to worry about why we didn’t read Julia Donaldson’s book. What was I missing?

I learned to recognise Axel Scheffler’s illustrations, and I fondly believed the Gruffalo wasn’t so much a monster; more an ugly, but otherwise really friendly creature.

Instead it seems there is a clever little mouse who really knows how to look after himself in many a tight corner. First he scares his neighbourhood bullies – the dangerous animals in the forest – by making up the dreadful Gruffalo. And when the Gruffalo turns out to be real, he avoids being eaten by fooling this monster, while ‘proving’ to the other animals he was telling the truth.

So, that was a surprise.

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, The Gruffalo

There is now a 20th anniversary special edition, with a forest play scene and cutout animals and everything. You could have lot of fun with that. Because judging by the queues for Julia Donaldson wherever she appears, her books remain extremely popular, and the Gruffalo is very well known. Look at me, I knew it without knowing it, or even being right about the book. We all know something.

(I still think he looks adorable, and that mouse is a sneaky little thing.)

Whoever had, has been given more

Until some years ago I admit I often felt grumpy when seeing among the books most sold during the year, the names of Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson. I recognised their greatness and that being ‘names’ and very popular, it made sense that adults bought lots of their books for little readers.

I just wanted there to be a few more children’s authors on the lists. Usually there was someone, but not many.

But at least they were there, alongside Jacky and Julia.

Now I feel grumpy beyond belief when having a quick look at the 2018 list of the 100 bestselling books of the year.

Yes, I am glad that children’s books make up a third of that top list. Although I have to take the Guardian’s word for that, since I was unable to identify all 33. And that’s so wrong. As the Bookwitch, even if I haven’t read them, I ought to know who’s who.

A third of the third – i.e. 11 of the bestselling titles – belong to the well known comedian David Walliams. This is wrong in so many ways. Jeff Kinney is there, but I can allow that. Three Harry Potters, thank goodness, one Julia Donaldson, one Kes Gray. Also one Michael Bond and Wonder by R J Palacio, both of which will be movie-related.

And some more celebrity-penned books, not all of which I actually recognise, despite people’s fame.

It seems both wrong, and unkind, to leave 2018 in a bit of an angry mood, but this is not right. Children deserve better. The world is full of really good books. I hope many of them found their way into children’s hands anyway, despite the big names hogging everyone’s attention.

Room on the Broom

When I wrote about Axel Scheffler and Brexit yesterday, I decided to look for my review of Room on the Broom, the picture book I bought almost ten years ago, and it was ‘old’ even then. It’s also my only signed Julia Donaldson. I chose Room on the Broom because it was about a witch, and I am no Gruffalo.

But it would seem I never reviewed it. I wrote about the bookshop event, and how keen the little children there were to hear more stories, and less of this boring signing business. They were young enough to have their priorities right.

I reread Room on the Broom yesterday. It is a lovely book; the pictures, the message, everything. And as Axel said, it’s about generally being nice to your fellow living beings, even if they are frogs or dogs. We all matter.

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Room on the Broom

What the witch did – sharing what she had, which was room on her broom, until it broke – came back to help her in her hour of need. Karma. (Any future brooms I may have, will definitely feature the comfortable seats this witch conjures up for her friends.)

As Axel said, ‘beware, Brexit Britain – if you have no friends in a hostile environment – the dragons may come and get you.’

What (not) to buy in 2018?

It was the Resident IT Consultant who mentioned it first. He noted that that David Walliams seemed to be everywhere in the top 100 books sold in 2017. I wasn’t surprised, but wish I had been. I’ve not counted the DW books on the list. Daughter did, but reckoned I probably didn’t want to hear how many.

I am pleased that a children’s book came second on that list. (Also pleased that it was – considerably – outsold by Jamie Oliver.) But I really would have wanted it to be a different book. I know; it’s good that children read. Or at least that someone is buying the books, whether or not they get read.

If it was any other book, I’d also be happy for the author who was financially rewarded, along with his or her publisher.

To return to my previously mentioned lesson learned from Random House, we should be grateful these books make money, because they help publish other books that simply don’t sell in great numbers. Well, all I can say is that on the strength of the DW sales, HarperCollins should be able to support an awful lot of ‘smaller’ books. Children’s books at that.

I don’t know this, but how much of such revenue goes to happy shareholders? Instead of being re-invested in more book products. I’m aware that DW has a past of doing charitable things, even if that was a stunt requiring other people to cough up the cash. Does he support any worthy causes with the income from his books?

In the same Guardian there was an article about a businessman who has received rather a large bonus, an amount of money that it was suggested could do a lot of good if used to solve the sad state of the homeless. My guess is he won’t do this. (Although, think of how he’d be remembered for all time – in a positive way – if he did!)

So, DW and publisher: Is there any likelihood of you doing this kind of good deed? We only require so much money for our own needs.

But back to the list. I’ve not read much on it. This is usually the case, as most of the big sellers are generally adult novels I don’t have time for, or recipe books and biographies of or by people I’ve barely heard of.

This year Philip Pullman is in tenth place and I’ve read his book. Of older books there’s obviously Harry Potter, and I have at some point looked at a Where’s Wally and the Wimpy Kids books.

The usual suspects such as Lee Child, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Dan Brown, are there; but interspersed with countless DW titles. Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson, often the biggest contributors to children’s books on the list of bestsellers, are at the bottom end. There is Wonder, which presumably has reappeared because of the recent film.

While horrified in general, I am hoping that this willingness to buy lots of children’s books will continue. And I’m hoping for more diverse purchases, which will be made possible only when publishers don’t only push celebrity titles. I’d like for there to be more excellent children’s titles, but the truth is that there are countless terrific books already in existence. They ‘merely’ need to be sold to the buyers of books. Use some of that money on telling the world about your other writers.

I’d like to mention a few recent HarperCollins books here as examples, but I’ve not been told about many. The new Oliver Jeffers book was ‘sold’ to me. I asked about the Skulduggery Pleasant book myself when I discovered its existence. I was offered an adult crime novel on the suggestion by the author. And someone emailed me to say she was leaving the company. This is not to say there weren’t heaps and heaps of great books. Just that there was no publicity coming my way, and possibly not going to others either.

Happy New Reading in 2018!!!

Day 7

Let me tell you about Keith Gray. Eight years ago, on our seventh and last day of our first Edinburgh Book Festival, Daughter and I happened upon Keith Gray signing in the children’s bookshop. It had been a bit of a learning curve for us, and we realised when we discovered Keith sitting there, that authors might be there even if we hadn’t gone to their events, and even when we didn’t know there was an event.

Keith Gray

Back then I was less shy about being forward, so walked up and introduced myself, and we had a nice chat. Over the years Keith has tended to pop up in Charlotte Square at some point, and there have been other Scottish-based events as well. But ever since that day – the 26th of August 2009 – in my mind he has personified the happy coincidence of the bookfest.

Yesterday was also the 26th of August, and Keith and his family had organised farewell drinks in Charlotte Square, for their many book friends, because they are moving away from Scotland. It was lovely of them to do so, and they will be missed. Much less coincidental popping in future, I suspect.

Jasmine Fassl and Debi Gliori

So, it was especially nice that Daughter was able to be there with me, freshly extricated from the Andes. She was able to say hello to Frances in the press yurt, and – oh, how convenient – she was able to take photos for me as I had an interview to do. I’m nothing but an opportunistic user of my nearest and dearest.

Claire McFall

The interview was with Claire McFall, about her astounding fame. In China, in case you were wondering. She’s lovely, and didn’t even complain as we almost cooked her in the ‘greenhouse’ café. (There will be more about Claire later.)

We’d already spied Michael Rosen, and I’d caught a glimpse of David Melling with Vivian French as they walked over to the Bosco Theatre (which meant I missed out on their signing in the Portakabin) for an event. The signing no one could miss was Julia Donaldson’s, still taking place right next to us in the greenhouse, a couple of hours after her event.

Kirkland Ciccone and Sharon Gosling

Pamela Butchart

Despite not dressing quite as loud as usual, we still managed to see Kirkland Ciccone, signing next to Sharon Gosling and Pamela Butchart. Who else but Kirkie would have posters of himself to sign and hand out? Pamela wore some rather fetching furry ears, but it wasn’t the same. Also milling about in the children’s bookshop were Danny Scott and Keith Charters. The latter chatted so much to Daughter that I had to do my own photographing…

Keith Charters

I believe that after this we managed to fit in eating our M&S sandwiches, before keeping our eyes peeled for one of Daughter’s heroes; Catherine Mayer of the Women’s Equality Party.

Catherine Mayer

We searched out some shade after this, enjoying a wee rest next to the Main theatre, where we were discovered by Kirkie and Keith C and chatted before they departed for home.

Cressida Cowell

Noticed Gill Lewis at a distance as we sped across the square to find illustrator Barroux in the children’s bookshop, and then straight over to the main signing tent for Cressida Cowell. Her signing queue was most likely of the two-hour variety, and necessitated the services of her publicity lady as well, so no chat for me.

Barroux and Sarah McIntyre

And as it seemed to be a day for dressing up, we lined up to see Sarah McIntyre sign, in her queenly outfit. You can join her but you can’t beat her. Barroux, who was still there, seemed to think so, as he stared admiringly at Sarah.

John Young

After all this to-ing and fro-ing we had covered all the signings we had planned for, and we went in search of the drinks party out in the square. Debi Gliori was there, before her own event later in the afternoon, and she and Daughter had a long chat, while I talked to Keith Gray himself. He introduced me to a few people, including debut author John Young, whose book I luckily happen to have waiting near the top of my tbr pile.

Philip Caveney and Lady Caveney turned up, and so did a number of other people I knew, but mostly people I didn’t. We were all charmed by a lovely young lady, who spent most of her time smiling and playing on the grass. If it had been socially accepted, I reckon Daughter might have taken her home with us.

Little M

Daughter and I had placed ourselves strategically by the path, so that when Philip Ardagh strolled past, we cut him off, forcing him to chat to us for a little, while also giving Keith an opportunity to come and say goodbye. And then Philip made Keith take the photo of him and the witches. It only looks as though we are of different height. In reality Philip’s arm on my shoulder was so heavy that I sank straight into the mud, making me look a little short…

Philip Ardagh and witches

We’d never have got away if we hadn’t had a train to catch, so we got away, and the train was caught, but not before we’d encountered Jackie Kay on the pavement outside. Seemed fitting, somehow.