Axel Scheffler worked with Julia Donaldson to create one of the most popular characters in children’s literature, writes Ellie O’Byrne
WHEN illustrator Axel Scheffler first showed his editor the sketches of a monster with orange eyes and knobbly knees for a children’s book he was working on, she told him it was much too frightening.
So he went back to the drawing board and came up with a safer version of the creature, with a more rounded form and comical face. The Gruffalo was born.
Scheffler, who describes himself as “shy and introverted”, wasn’t expecting the rhyming David-and-Goliath tale of a mouse that uses his wits to escape the fearsome woodland Gruffalo to be the runaway success that it has been. But to date, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s book has sold over 13 million copies in 58 editions worldwide in 43 languages, and been adapted for screen and stage.
The book was penned by his long-time collaborator, Donaldson, who has since become the fourth-highest selling British author in history, in no small part due to The Gruffalo and its sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, but it was Scheffler who devised the eponymous monster’s appearance.
“Partly he was described in the text, but the overall shape of the furry monster with horns was basically mine,” Scheffler says. “I think Julia had a completely different idea about what a Gruffalo should look like but I couldn’t just ask her to draw one!”
Donaldson and Scheffler first teamed up in 1993 for A Squash and a Squeeze, a story about an old lady with cramped living quarters derived from a song Donaldson had written for children’s television. They’ve always maintained a delineated working relationship, though, and don’t tread on each other’s toes when it comes to who is the writer and who is the illustrator.
Born in Hamburg, Scheffler lives in London with his French partner and their eight-year-old daughter. Becoming a father for the first time at 50 has given Scheffler a new perspective on his work.
“I’m one of those old dads,” he says. “Being a father, it’s an interesting experience to see a child growing up with books; it’s fascinating the effect that books have on a child’s brain, I find that great to see as a daily experience. Books and reading are very important for the development of children and their imaginations and to see that as a father is amazing. I read to her every night.”
The magical combination of Donaldson’s soothing rhymes and Scheffler’s vivid illustrations have captured the imaginations of young children and their parents in numerous other titles like Room on the Broom, The Snail and The Whale and Monkey Puzzle, and Scheffler’s distinctive illustrating style, is also in high demand for other children’s books.
“I’m doing a little book for a German publisher and there’s a Julia Donaldson songbook that I’m just finished so it’s busy-busy; there’s always a project,” he says.
Success has some drawbacks, however, and Scheffler sometimes yearns for the space to work on projects in new styles.
“I feel I’ve been a bit pushed in that direction by my publishers because I became suddenly successful and so they want more,” he says. “There’s always this urge to do something that would look completely different but I don’t have the time. Sometimes I feel like a machine churning out what sells very well; I would love to have the chance to experiment a little bit more.”
A lover of good old-fashioned snail-mail, Scheffler draws illustrations on the envelopes of letters that he writes and finds some creative release in doing so.
Is he planning on branching out and experimenting more, perhaps working on illustrating something for adults? He sighs. “I should put my foot down a bit because now I’m in a position to do that, but I never quite do, somehow.”
But the joy of seeing children respond to his work never fades. “It’s amazing to see how much the characters mean, to children and to parents,” he says. “When you meet people and see how much they love the character, that stays magical; it never goes away.”
Scheffler will be making two appearances in Lismore Castle for the second annual Towers and Tales children’s story festival. He’s looking forward to his visit, not least because he has something of a soft spot for Ireland and has holidayed here several times: “I’ve been boating on the Shannon in a houseboat and that was wonderful, but I’ve heard great things about Lismore and I’m really looking forward to the festival.”
He’ll do one children’s reading and one talk geared towards aspiring illustrators, where he will bring his 27 years of experience as an illustrator to an adult audience. Such is his popularity that the children’s reading sold out within days of the programme’s release, but the festival is home to a host of other events, both ticketed and free, and rumour has it that the Gruffalo himself might be putting in an appearance.
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