In honour of the 10th anniversary of the classic picture book, The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, I thought I'd start a whole new series of articles on picture books. I am an unashamed fan of children's fiction. Loved it growing up, loved it as a grown up re-reading (well before Harry Potter made it OK for adults to read kid's books), and love sharing my favourites with my children. But, I have to admit, it is only since having nieces and nephews, and then children of my own that I have really been struck by the brilliant art of picture books. With great picture books, the wonderful interplay between the image and the words on the page are a joy to read to toddlers, and their reactions are even better. Since Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are the dream team in terms of writing and pictures coming together - The Gruffalo is a great place to start.
I first came across The Gruffalo at my godson's 2nd birthday party. He'd been given it as a present, and at some point in the proceedings when the toddlers were getting restive, I picked it up and started reading it to them. It was an instant hit, and I was so entranced I rushed out and bought a copy for my family. I've lost count of how many times I've read it over the last 8 years, but it's one I never tire of. So what is it about this particular book that still draws my children back and gives it an unheard of 25 five star ratings on Amazon ?
As a writer, of course, I've got to say it starts with the writing (though I promise to come back to the pictures later). Like many a good young children's writer, Donaldson opts for the rhyming story. Rhymes are of course perfect for pre-schoolers, they're easy to read out loud, easy to remember, and ideal for the inevitable "again,again" moment, but Donaldson's rhyming is superlative. She doesn't ever fall into the trap of the simple and obvious - she does what grown up poets do, and goes for the rhyming sound rather than the look, "good" with "wood", "said" with "sped", "gruffalo", with "know". And, if I'm not mistaken, the main rhythm of the piece is good old iambic pentameter. Hard to pull off at the best of times, but she does it lightly, so the words really trip off the tongue and the conversations seem very natural:
"It's terribly kind of you, Fox, but no-
I'm going to have lunch with a gruffalo."
The other brilliant thing she does is to use the rhyming to build up to the central climax. The mouse meets the fox, the owl and the snake and has the same conversation 3 times. He can't go with them because he's about to meet the mythical Gruffalo, who he describes in ever more lurid detail. As they disappear off in fear, he laughs "there's no such thing as a Gruffalo" until the third occasion, brings him face to face with the monster, and "Gruffalo" becomes "Gruffal-Oh". It's a magic moment, aided by the fact you have to turn the page to get that punch-line. And, the rhymes are then repeated slightly differently as the Gruffalo and the mouse meet the three animals again and the story works to its resolution.
Of course, the book wouldn't work if it was just clever rhyming. The narrative at the heart of the tale is wonderful. A quick witted mouse uses his brains to avoid being eaten by three predators by making up a story about a terrible monster. Just as he is congratulating himself on his brilliance, he discovers the monster is real, and has to talk himself out of trouble, by tricking the Gruffalo into thinking he is more dangerous than he looks. It's a classic simple tale of the hero winning against all odds, and Donaldson pulls it off brilliantly.
But if the writing powers the book forward, it is Axel Scheffler's wonderful pictures that give it life and energy. Look at the front cover above, doesn't it just say open me up? The mouse's eyes seem bright, and he is always drawn in action with a smile on his face - reflecting his clever, witty character. The Gruffalo, is a great mix of menace and stupidity. He has the orange eyes, the purple spines down his back, the tusks, the jaws that the mouse describes, and he's enormous. He could squash the mouse with his foot, and yet, there is something aout the way his jaw is drawn so low down, and his eyes seem so incredulous, that suggests he has half the brain the mouse has. The other characters are equally well drawn, as are the tiny background details, bugs and butterflies with smily faces and open-eyed wonder. It's a perfect marriage with the text, and is one reason why this book will sell for ever.
So Happy Birthday to The Gruffalo! Many thanks to Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler for the years of pleasure. I'm sure (if I'm that lucky) I'll be reading it to my grandchildren.