Why I Love Julia Donaldson’s Picture Books
If you read books to your children (and you should), there’s a more than even chance you will have come across the work of Julia Donaldson. If you haven’t, allow me to commend her to you now. Donaldson is the author of numerous award winning picture books, including (but not limited to) The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, Monkey Puzzle and The Smartest Giant in Town.
Before I became a parent myself, it never occurred to me that a two year old could have a favourite author. I was wrong. Whether or not my two year old understands that there is a common author behind her favourite works or not, I cannot say. One thing I do know is that the vast majority of the books she asks my wife and I to read to her over and over were penned by Julia Donaldson.
A remarkable coincidence! I hear you cry. But no, for I can also say with certainty that of all the books I read to my daughter, Julia Donaldson’s picture books are the ones that I also enjoy the most.
So what makes her work stand head and shoulders above the rest?
Perhaps one of the things I like most about her books is the non-patronising language she uses. Although it is crafted in a way which is highly accessible for small children, the quality of writing suggests a (very correct) presupposition that children are intelligent and capable of learning, rather than stupid and in need simplistic sentences and single syllable words. As a result, the word choice and sentence structure in her picture books is often not so different to what you might find in a book aimed at a much older audience, were it not for the use of repetition and rhyme which make the writing more accessible for younger audiences.
In a similar way, the stories themselves are far more tightly structured than I have found in picture books by other authors. Many non-Donaldson picture books I’ve come across either read like some strange literary acid trip (I hate these) or else have a meandering quality to them, with little or no conflict for the protagonist to overcome. For instance, Eric Hill’s Spot books follow the adventures of a puppy called Spot who does perfectly normal things, like going to library where he reads some books and brings a few home. Now there’s nothing wrong with that in a picture book (my daughter loves Spot too!), however Donaldson’s books actually employ the conventions found in more adult writing, such as giving characters motives, goals, conflicts and resolutions. This not only makes the story more enjoyable for the parent reading it, but also allows the child to experience a story with a bit of substance to it and, as a consequence, to learn a thing or two about life.
For instance, one of my daughter’s favourites is Tabby McTat, in a which a busker’s cat is accidentally separated from his master. The cat builds a new life for himself, settles down with new owners and has a family but is continually plagued by the memory of his old master until he finally goes hunting for him. Upon finding him, he is torn between returning to his old master and remaining with his new family. There is also a subplot about the youngest son of McTat’s litter who enjoys singing loudly and out of tune to such an extent that he is unable to find an owner. These conflicts are also resolved with a neat little bow at the end of the story, just like you would expect to find in any quality piece of writing.
My daughter loves this book, and will often comment not only on the central themes of the story, but will also ask us about other interesting concepts the book has introduced her to, such as busking, thieving, hospitals and family. In a similar way, whenever we read The Highway Rat, which tells the story of a highway robber, she frequently will interrupt us to ask who the stolen property belongs to; and when we tell her that it really belongs to the character the rat stole it from, my daughter will arrive at the conclusion that the rat shouldn’t have taken it. Again, when we read The Gruffalo’s Child, my daughter will explain to us that the Gruffalo’s Child really should have stayed at home, and when we get to the bit where the Gruffalo’s Child says she isn’t scared, my daughter will pipe up: ‘I think she probably is scared!’
In short, she is learning and loving it.
I suspect we often patronise our children with meaningless stories. I do believe there is an important place for low/zero conflict picture books in the world of children’s fiction so I certainly don’t mean to knock any other books or authors (except for the aforementioned acid-trip writers; you can get out of my house), but I feel that Donaldson and authors like her provide a very special service to children by giving them access to stories which will give them the experience of a character with a goal they cannot easily accomplish. If such things are wholesome for adult consumption, surely they are also beneficial to a child (provided, of course, that language and themes are age appropriate).
As for me, I can think of no better compliment for a children’s author than to say that her writing both teaches and pleases my daughter; and that is exactly what Julia Donaldson has accomplished time and time again.
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Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlight, drop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.
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