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23 July 2023

Julia Donaldson Q&A: “I have wonderful memories of busking in Siena”

The author of The Gruffalo on Schubert, her love of botany, and the importance of never being caught short.

By New Statesman

Julia Donaldson was born in London in 1948. She is best known for her stories for children, including The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, and was the UK children’s laureate from 2011 to 2013.

What’s your earliest memory?

When I was two, my parents, aunt, uncle and grandmother bought a house together. I was taken there by my aunt and uncle, and on the way they bought me a wooden football rattle in Woolworths, which I remember waving.

[See also: Jess de Boer’s Q&A: “Our bees are tough beasties to work with”]

Who are your heroes?

Eleanor Farjeon, the author of children’s books such as The Silver Curlew, as well as lots of great poems. She lived not far from us, and when my class made harvest festival baskets for old people I took mine round to her, as an excuse to meet her. As an adult, my hero is our local bookseller who also helps to run the film club and organise the spring fair. I admire people who do things for their community.

What book last changed your thinking?

English Pastoral by James Rebanks. His account of his family’s farm over three generations helped me understand the unsustainability of modern methods, while giving me some hope for the future.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Clement Attlee for his role in the creation of the welfare state and the NHS.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’m fairly knowledgeable about wild flowers and take part in a regular local botanical survey, so I would choose a group of flowers, eg the peaflower family.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Vienna in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. I could have watched Mozart perform piano concertos and hear the premieres of Schubert songs and Beethoven symphonies.

What TV show could you not live without?

Wimbledon became a regular TV fixture this year, though without Federer on the courts it wasn’t quite as compelling.

Who would paint your portrait?

I have already had my portrait painted for the National Portrait Gallery by Peter Monkman. I’m sitting, pen in hand, in my props room. I like that picture and don’t feel the need for another one. (Also I don’t like sitting still.)

What’s your theme tune?

“Der Musensohn” by Schubert. It means Son (or in my case Daughter) of the Muses. I love the exhilaration of the piano.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Always go to the loo before you go out. This gets more important as the years go by. A friend told me a story about being caught short on a walk and ending up caught on barbed wire by her knickers.

What’s currently bugging you?

Our cats catching birds and bringing them into the house.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish I could hear better. I wear two very good hearing aids but still miss a lot.

When were you happiest?

I have wonderful memories of busking in Siena when I was in my early twenties.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d like to be a classical singer, or a dancer.

Are we all doomed?

It depends what you mean by “all”. Even if the human race wipes itself out, I like to hope that other life forms will continue on Earth – at least for a few billion years until the sun turns into a red giant.

“Julia Donaldson’s Book of Names”, illustrated by Nila Aye, is published by Pan Macmillan

[See also: Kae Tempest’s Q&A: “I can go from ‘Stayin’ Alive’ to Mozart in an afternoon”]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special