“It’s very hard to believe that the children who read The Gruffalo as five-year-olds are now grown-ups. It shows how incredibly old I am,” says illustrator Axel Scheffler, who alongside writer Julia Donaldson is remarking on the 20th anniversary of one of the bestselling picture books in the world.
“The little gap of people who wouldn’t have read it is narrowing,” Donaldson adds. “There are still some, who are in their thirties without children, who perhaps were too old to have it read to them [as children]. But [with] every year that goes by, it will be part of the lives of more and more people.” It is already part of the lives of a whole lot of people: the original 1999 edition of The Gruffalo has sold 1.49 million copies, for £7.02m, in the UK, according to Nielsen Bookscan. There have been more editions since, bringing its total volume up to around 2.35 million units. Sales are growing internationally, too: this month the book sold into its 81st language—more languages than Harry Potter, according to its publisher Macmillan. “My husband goes to international conferences, and will meet someone from somewhere like from Israel, who will tell him: ‘You know, the Israeli version is much better than the English version’,” says Donaldson. “We get that a lot.”
The pair began working together on A Squash and A Squeeze in 1993, when Macmillan suggested that Scheffler illustrated Donaldson’s text. The duo work “completely separately”, with Donaldson writing the text first and then sending it to the publisher, then Scheffler receives the text and starts to sketch. “Maybe that’s why we’re still friends,” Scheffler jokes.
Generally it’s a smooth process, and the pair are happy with what the other produces. “I wouldn’t dream of saying to Axel, ‘No, do it like this’, or, ‘Make it more curly’, and Axel wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t like the metre here’,” says Donaldson. “Although in one book he did say, ‘It’s winter, the snake would be in hibernation.’ But the trouble was, I had all these tracks in the snow; there had to be snow. In the end he just drew a very sleepy snake.”
It appears Scheffler wasn’t completely satisfied with that conclusion. “I could also have argued whether the snake’s habitat is really the deep dark wood, or if snakes would live more in the heathlands,” he says, but after a sly glance counters “but let’s not start this after 20 years... You have to take some liberties when you do picture books.”
Ducking behind Donaldson, Scheffler cheekily shakes his head when I ask if the pair know what each other likes and dislikes in their books after working together for so long. Although, Donaldson says: “I think Axel is very good at doing modern-day settings, like in Tabby McTat, although I found out that Axel would rather go more into fantasy worlds. So recently I did a sequel to Zog, because Axel said he liked doing mythical creatures and things”. Scheffler interjects: “Although, I didn’t mean that kind of mythical creature. I was thinking of Ancient Greece, with centaurs and phoenixes...” Donaldson finds another example: “Well I did a mermaid with another illustrator because she had actually said, ‘Let’s do a book about mermaids’; then Axel said, ‘Ah, I want to do a mermaid!’ So I put a mermaid in [one of our other books].”
Although the atmosphere is one of celebration, the threat of Brexit does still manage to colour proceedings. When we speak, Donaldson and the German-born Scheffler are poised to join the one million people marching against Brexit in London the next day. While the situation has been marked by uncertainty and confusion from the outset, Scheffler highlights the insecurity of his position when I ask how Brexit will affect the pair’s working relationship. “I have no idea [how it will affect us]”, he says. “I guess we’ll just carry on, but maybe I’m going to leave... I still don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel very furious, but I know as little as I did last year. Questions like, will I have health insurance? Will I be able to travel? Will I be able to stay here? All these things I don’t know.”
Later this year Scheffler will be touring with an exhibition based on a book titled Drawing Europe Together (which was in turn inspired by an exhibition that took place in Germany). The book, published by Macmillan, features drawings celebrating Europe from 45 illustrators, including Judith Kerr, Quentin Blake and Chris Riddell. Meanwhile, Donaldson is working on her theatre show “The Gruffalo, The Witch and The Warthog”, which will be performed in Basingstoke and London this month.
Next from the pair is a “Brexit-type story” called The Smeds and the Smoos, publishing this September. It follows two groups of aliens who never mix, although when a young Smed and Smoo fall in love they try to bring their warring families together.