Friday 31 January 2020


Today is Friday 31st January,. Tomorrow will be Saturday 1st February and tonight we will be "out of Europe." Right now, I can't help feeling hugely sad.

I have been wearing my head out, wondering what to say for this particular start-the-new-month post.  I could pretend all is okay and go on ahead, idly whistling. I could pretend there's a story to write - although I have no confidence in what people want any more. I could pretend to devote myself to words on the page when - right now - I can see only a blank space?  As I suspect do many: these last twelve months have not been a very creative period.

I could even pretend to be poorly - groan, moan,  sob! -  and say I forgot about my ABBA post entirely?  Yet how can I do any of these when I feel as if there's a sort of monster roaming around the land?

Then, musing,  I thought of another monster:  an instantly-recognisable, much-loved monster who, despite his anxious look, is probably a highly profitable monster too.

And I looked at some of the story behind this particular monster's story and this is what I found.

Once upon a time . . .
There was a boy who lived in Germany. He loved art and he loved drawing and he decided he wanted to teach other people about art.

Unfortunately, he and his college studies did not get on. For a while, the boy - now a young man - helped mentally ill people in their homes and set his dream aside. Away on holiday, this German man shared his love of art with an English friend. The consquence was that he moved to the UK  and finally studied at Bath Academyof Art in Wiltshire  and went on an exchange to New York.

A Squash and a Squeeze | Teaching Children PhilosophyMoving to London, his freelance work was used in advertising and editorial articles and he also started illustrating children's books.

One book was based on a popular Jewish European folk tale. (As someone interested in folk tales, I'd come across this already where the plot centres on the troubles of a farmer overwhelmed by his complaining wife and many children.)  The version that he  - or the artist Axel Scheffler, as you know by  now - worked on  kept the plot within a simple farmyard setting.

The delightful retelling proved a very popular title  mainly -  I feel - because Axel's simple style fitted so perfectly with the book's setting, and partly because children and grown-ups responded to the words and rhythmic patterns in the text.

Yet it was not, apparently, until after the book was out that Methuen - the publishers - brought the artist and writer together:  "Axel meet Julia, Julia meet Axel"  And so their famous collaboration began.
But who was this Julia? What was her story? 

Julia grew up in North London. Although her father was a doctor, the whole family and - I assume -  several of their friends were keen amateur musicians and theatrical performers.

Julia and her sister became part of a children's opera group and spent much of their childhood creating their own plays and props and acting out their own stories. Given a weighty anthology, she loved learning and and reciting many of the thousand poems.

By the time Julia was at Bristol University, she was a capable musician and songwriter, well used to singing at folk clubs and in public. During the summer holidays, Julia and two friends went busking in Paris before travelling around France and around Europe. They performed in clubs, on the street and often to groups of children. Julia began making up simple plays and songs in the language of each country where they were perfoming.

Julia was someone who knew three European languages, helped -  or so I feel - by the fact that her parents were both fluent German speakers and her mother a leider-singer. Julia herself had studied French and German at school, learning Italian while working as a children's tutor in Naples. This was also a time when learning one or two European languages was considered an important part of a well-rounded education.

She, like Axel, went to America, travelling round the States on a Greyhound bus and busking in Seattle and San Francisco before returning to London. She then worked as a publisher's secretary and wrote children's plays and songs for BBC Bristol and for the popular children's tv programme Play Away.  After gaining a PGCE, she taught English in school for two years before returning to France for a year,  finally moving up to Glasgow in Scotland. At home with children, she started using the skills she'd learned as a song-writer. sending off manuscripts to children's publishers.

And so,  and so . . .

One day, an editor at Methuen invited her in to discuss a possible picture book, A Squash and A Squeeze. It was to be illustrated by a German artist living in London called Axel Sheffler - and so it began. 

Working together, the pair created The Gruffalo, winning hearts and awards, as well as Julia's Children's Laureate role and film deals and more.  Other collaborations followed, including another great family favourite: Room on the Broom.

The Gruffalo - Room on the Broom 15th Anniversary Edition(Possibly, Broom and Squeeze are both about finding enough room for everyone and appreciating each others strengths, needs and fears Maybe that is the same for The Gruffalo?)

I'm writing this post, thinking about all the European countries that fed, somewhere, into The Gruffalo's success. There is Germany, France,
 Italy, England, Scotland - and maybe others I haven't read about yet.

He could almost be described as a particularly European monster if not a global creation..

 Once you start to look, you can find other European authors and illustrators: some as well known and beloved as Judith Kerr, or Goscinny & Uderzo and their translators* ; or Astrid Lingren, plus a host of now-unknown others who are starting as new names within the forest of children's early readers. This without mentioning that there are several artists like Quentin Blake, who live and work some of the year in Europe.

I love the way that the children's book world crosses boundaries and cultures in all sorts of ways, not only in the books themselves, but in real life, in meetings and conversations. There are children's writers and artists right now, counting their pennies and euros to work out whether to travel to the children's publishing festival in Bologna and wallow in all the books and artwork on show there: a trip that is one of my fantasies. One day  . . . one day . . .

Finally, this week's end has brought another book back into my mind. The Christmas before last, I bought copies of this book to give to friends. Initially an exhibition, the book was published as a visual testament, as a way to show how strongly these forty-five illustrators - and many more illustrators and authors -  feel about the  value of our European links. If you peer closely, you'll spot the name of the person who wrote the foreword: Axel Scheffler.

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Here's to hopes for a friendlier and kinder future than we've lived through this last while. 

More information about these artists can be found at

and at
Written with apologies if any unknown errors have crept into these accounts.

*Fact just found: One "Asterix the Gaul"  translator was Anthea Bell , the editor that Julia Donaldson worked for when first involved in publishing herself.

By Penny Dolan.
Written on the 31st January 2020


Lynne Benton said...

Very well said, Penny. How many opportunities will be lost once we leave? I hadn't realised that Julia and Axel shared so many European experiences - a very interesting post.

Enid Richemont said...

Such an appropriate and interesting post, Penny.

Pippa Goodhart said...

The perfect blog for today. Thank you, Penny. And of course so many of our publishers who founded new publishing houses came from other European countries too.

Penny Dolan said...

That's true, Pippa! Thanks for mentioning that fact.

Leslie Wilson said...

I presume the Gruffalo’s name is related to Garofalo as in mozzarella cheese? Another mainland European connection...

Penny Dolan said...

Possibly, Leslie. :-)
Or Giroffle? But doesn't look like a wallflower to me.

Penny Dolan said...

Lynne and Enid, thanks for your thoughtful comments. The date, and everything surrounding it, made this quite a hard post to write.