Books by Julia Donaldson are among our favourite on the shelf. The plots are invariably interesting and understandable for Budster, and I enjoy the lively rhythm, humour and dialogues which invite the possibility of turning reading into performing. Many of her stories have comforting, familiar elements taken from traditional folk and fairy tales. For example, a heroine helps three magical animals in trouble, and they in turn save her from a greater peril. Familiar? Quite so. However, with modern perspective and fun details (both literary and pictorial) the stories are fresh and original.
The illustrations deserve special attention. When one mentions Donaldson’s name, the name of Alex Scheffler almost always comes up as well, for his contribution to Donaldson’s most famous books. Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and The Snail and the Whale top a long list. The pictures in the books not only illustrate the text but add to its plot, and it is clear that here the author and the illustrator work together. Scheffler’s pictures make for a great children’s book, and I cannot imagine Room on the Broom with a different witch or without his rainy reeds and rivers, but… I do wonder if Donaldon would have a different feel with a wider variety of artists.
That’s why a very special place on our shelf belongs to a less famous book, Cave Baby, with illustrations by Emily Gravett. Her illustrations are also filled with humour and attention to detail, but watercolours light the story up with a tenderness suitable to the tale of a cave baby. I would say this prehistoric fantasia is my favourite. A young artist starts painting, while still being in his – leafy – diapers, and uses the walls of his cave as a canvas for his first experiments. His parents are not quite happy, but the budding talent finds his admirers.
Cave Baby’s lucky – he lives inside a cave
With his Mom (who’s good at painting) and his Dad (who’s very brave)
And a sabre-toothed tiger, a hyena and a hare,
And a grey wooly mammoth, and a big brown bear.
Cave Baby’s lonely. Nobody will play.
Dad’s busy being brave, Mom says, “Keep away”.
Everything is boring… then suddenly it’s not
For in a corner of the cave he finds a brush and a pot.
Budster also enjoys the story. After I had read it to him for the first time, the next day I found him on the floor with a bowl of clay slip and a brush, painting. He got the idea. (Update: Cave Baby has been a firm favourite and a must-read during the next half a year, and Budster is starting to recite it along with me now.)
Now that he is fifteen-months-old, Budster often chooses Room on the Broom for reading. This is the story of the heroine who helped three animals – it is interesting to note that the heroine herself would often be pictured evil, but here she is not. In fact, she is one of the most charming witches in literature. There is also a great BBC cartoon based on the book. As Budster’s companion, I have had the good fortune to watch it about ten times – and I actually still enjoy it. The twenty-seven minute video gives an opportunity to further develop the character’s personalities. Our son has a special feeling for the “keen dog”, while my husband and I really chuckle at the perfectionist frog. What about you?
The witch had a cat
and a very tall hat,
And long ginger hair
which she wore in a plait.
How the cat purred
and how the witch grinned,
As they sat on their broomstick
and flew through the wind.
However, what really started Budster’s fondness for Donaldson’s works is the book, Monkey Puzzle. There was a week when he wanted to read nothing but the story about a monkey who lost his Mom. I guess it is a problem that worries a lot of small children: what if Mommy gets lost? Even Budster sometimes finds that Mommy can be lost in the shower, and that is no fun. In the book, a butterfly helps the monkey with his search, finding him different animals based on the monkey’s descriptions of his Mom. After the little monkey is brought to the elephant for the second time, he finally exclaims.
“Butterfly, butterfly, can’t you see? None of these creatures looks like me!”
“You never told me she looked like you”.
“Of course, I didn’t! I thought you knew.”
That’s how we find out that butterflies and their babies do not look exactly alike and get a small lesson in biology. Meanwhile, the monkey finds his Mom, and the story gets to a happy ending.
As for Gruffalo, we are still working on getting through the woods with a little gray mouse. In the story, the mouse is going for a walk, and everyone expresses a wish to invite him for a meal (where he will be the main course). But he informs a fox, an owl and a snake that he is in a hurry for a meeting with his big scary (imaginary) friend Gruffalo. The animals back down, and everything goes well until the mouse meets… Gruffalo.
The story is ironic and smart, though perhaps a bit more some than my one-year-old son can appreciate. For now he just likes the picture of Gruffalo, whether an imaginary beast or not.
Do you have Julia Donaldson’s books in your house? What are your favourites?