Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury | 'This book is actually sort of the opposite of The Gruffalo'

Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury | 'This book is actually sort of the opposite of The Gruffalo'

This year sees the release of the first collaborative project by two of the UK’s best-loved picture book talents, Julia Donaldson and Helen Oxenbury, despite the surprising fact that the pair had never met before starting work on one of Puffin’s biggest releases of the year.

In April, the Penguin Random House Children’s division  release a picture-book version of The Giant Jumperee, a tale originally published as a play. It is about Rabbit, who realises that a Giant Jumperee is lurking in his burrow. Fearing the creature, who shouts “I’m the Giant Jumperee and I’m scary as can be!”, Rabbit enlists the help of Cat, Bear and Elephant to find out who is behind the scary, booming voice. None of the animals dare stand up to the mysterious animal, until Mummy Frog comes along and reveals that the Giant Jumperee is actually Baby Frog, who needs to go home for tea.

The Giant Jumperee, based on a traditional folk tale, was originally published in 2000 as part of Pearson’s Rigby Star series, with illustrations by Trevor Dunton. But Donaldson says she always regretted not turning the story into a book. That opportunity came along when her agent Caroline Sheldon and Puffin “clawed back the rights” to publish the text as a picture book, and when Puffin asked Donaldson who she wanted to work with, she immediately thought of Oxenbury. “Puffin isn’t my regular publisher, although I have done some books for it,” she says. “It’s quite nice for me sometimes to be liberated from my normal publishers: I’m very, very loyal to Macmillan and Scholastic, but sometimes working with another publisher is a bit like having a country cottage or going on holiday. One of the lovely things was that I got to choose my dream illustrator.”

Puffin sent Oxenbury, who was keen to work with the former children’s laureate, the final text, and the illustrator says she was most attracted to the characters. “What stood out to me were the wonderful characters, then the great story, which had an unexpected ending. You couldn’t have asked for more. I love the fact that the animals all turn into terrible wimps until lovely Mummy Frog turns up. She has seen it all before and is wise to the whole thing.”

Oxenbury used watercolours to create the images, and she says that she was “pleased” the story was about animals rather than humans because she loves drawing them, although she says scale was “quite a challenge [as] the size was a bit of a headache, trying to get the elephant and then a little frog on the same page”.

Donaldson adds: “It’s always the illustrator who brings cohesion and brings the characters to life. Often children say, ‘I love the characters’, but actually when you look at the text on its own, most of my characters are described by just two adjectives or something. The illustrator makes them fully fledged.”

Oxenbury persuaded Donaldson that there should be no depictions of the Giant Jumperee, so that readers could conjure their own creature. “I have to admit I have this publicist side of myself, and I was thinking that monsters sell books, so maybe there could be some pictures of how children imagine the monster could be,” says Donaldson. “Helen said no, and I think she was right.” Oxenbury interjects: “You shouldn’t expain too much - let [children] think and wonder about what’s under there.”

“This book is actually sort of the opposite of The Gruffalo,” Donaldson continues. “In The Gruffalo the mouse makes up this monster and you don’t think the monster is real, but it becomes real. In this story it’s the other way around. Everyone thinks there is a monster but it turns out to be a little animal playing a trick.”

A rights success

Puffin has already sold rights in 10 languages, with Finnish and Welsh pending. Unusually, overseas publishers were happy to buy the rights based on Oxenbury’s roughs, and Puffin’s rights team had an “amazing time” at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair last year, according to editor Anna Barnes. “We only had four pieces of final artwork to take to Bologna,” she reveals. “But thanks to the power of the story and Helen’s artwork, we sold in maybe seven or eight languages in Bologna alone. Our rights team is delighted, to put it mildly.”

Puffin’s promotional plans include media interviews and appearances at book festivals, and Donaldson is planning a trip to the US later in the year. Since The Giant Jumperee was originally published as a play, she has already perfected performing the story with schoolchildren: she asks one to play Rabbit, one to play Mummy Frog and one to play Baby Frog, with others acting as bears and elephants.

PRH’s high expectations for the book are not surprising given how successful the two creators are. Donaldson sold 2.94 million copies of 313 different titles for a total of £13.9m in 2016, according to Nielsen BookScan, while Oxenbury achieved sales of 138,971 units for a value of £780,268, driven mainly by We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, her 1989-published collaboration with Michael Rosen that was adapted for television and aired over Christmas. Donaldson received an MBE in 2011, the same year she was appointed children’s laureate; and Oxenbury has received the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal twice, for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Walker Books) in 1999 and Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle’s Hat and The Dragon of an Ordinary Family (Heinemann Young Books) in 1969.

Together, the pair have published more than 300 individual books in the UK, achieving sales of more than 21 million units, according to Puffin. Both say the industry has changed since they started out, especially on the production side. “When I first started you almost had to do your own separations: you did the line and the colour separately and then they would be put together,” says Oxenbury. “It was laborious and time-consuming. The colours are so much better now. I used to spend hours thinking about different colours and when the book was printed it would be nothing like it. But now they get it spot on.”

Conversely, the industry is more reliant on computers, something Donaldson feels is not always a positive. “There are some illustrations where they just fill in the background. There are a lot of wacky illustrations as well. But I just love it when you can see how well someone can draw.” They also appreciate the fact that they have more freedom to pick and choose which projects they do, although that doesn’t mean they feel complacent about the release of The Giant Jumparee. Oxenbury says creatives “never, ever rest on their laurels” because “there are always nerves that the next book isn’t going to be any good”, while Donaldson says the “weight of expectation” can make her nervous.

However, the duo say they would be happy to collaborate again - after their upcoming individual projects are out of the way. (Oxenbury is illustrating an untitled adult book, and Donaldson is publishing The Ugly Five with Axel Scheffler and Scholastic). As Oxenbury says: “It’s so rare to get a good text. I get sent so many and I don’t often get a really good one. You have to love it instantly. I’d love to work with Julia again.”