Doctor of Letters
22 February 2011 - Orator: Professor David Punter
Julia Donaldson is very well-known as a children’s author. But that, perhaps, is not the best way of describing her and her work. She is, in fact, a teller of tales; and this is a profession, trade or craft with one of the longest of pedigrees. For when you are writing for children, of whatever age, you are not writing for children alone. You are writing for an enormous audience: present children and the children of the future; adolescents; and, of course, their parents. Children, it is fair to say, can occasionally be bored by stories; but if their parents are gripped, then they will be too, and the value of stories to the development of the child is surely hardly capable of exaggeration. Ms Donaldson has written some of the most compelling of children’s tales in the language; and because they are informative as well as entertaining, educational as well as superlatively funny, developmental as well as occasionally deeply subversive, we should all consider ourselves to be very much in her debt.
Born and brought up in Hampstead, London, she came here to Bristol as a student, where she studied Drama and French. But she very much made the most of the wider cultural opportunities provided by Bristol. While reading for her degree, including the necessary time she spent in France, she busked locally with a variety of friends, one of whom would go on to become her husband. She describes, though, part of her time in Bristol in quite draconian terms: Clifton Hill House was at that time a women-only hall: no visitors allowed, apparently, except by prior arrangement with the Warden, and certainly no male visitors; how times have changed. Nevertheless Bristol undoubtedly played a formative part in what was to become her expanding career.
While here she acted in a number of plays, some of them of decidedly local provenance; and she tells an amusing story of her time when she was playing a tree in a rather little-known play called I am Not the Eiffel Tower. Due to her convincing representation of a tree, she was appointed to the distinguished role of Chief Tree; but owing to a slight accident with her costume, which I am certainly not going to detail here, she found herself having to perform a brief contortion, and was alarmed to find that all the other trees were going though the same contortion. Perhaps her deep gift for fun was born here; but far more probably, I think, it had always underlain her character.
At all events, after Bristol she played songs and acted around Europe, and then found herself for a time writing songs to order for BBC Children’s TV; she records how, on a typical night, she might be ordered to write ‘one song about roller-skating, another about horrible smells, by next Tuesday’. But a moment of transformation arrived, when the BBC asked whether the words of one her songs, ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ might be turned into a picture book.
Before this moment, however, and her move to Glasgow, where she now lives, it is important to say that she had returned to Bristol, and spent six years living in Montpelier, around Ashley Road and Picton Street, areas well-known to many of us here and currently undergoing, I think it is fair to say, something of a cultural renaissance.
However: after this invitation to engage with a picture book, I think it is no exaggeration to say that her career has never looked back. Since the time we are now mentioning, Ms Donaldson has written some 79 books; she claims, perhaps with undue modesty, that not all of those have been published, but the vast majority of them have. Some of them are read night by night to children, while others have become staples of early adolescent reading. We also know (though you may make of this what you will) that the wonderful The Snail and the Whale was named by Gordon Brown as one of his favourite books. It is also apposite to record that another of her books, Running on the Cracks, begins in Bristol, indeed from Temple Meads Station; it gives an account of running away to Glasgow, a journey which now, I fear, would be scarcely achievable, or affordable, without an advance ticket. I think I should also at this point mention Ms Donaldson’s long-time illustrator, Axel Scheffler: many of us will have in our minds indivisible images of word and picture.
Ms Donaldson has also, very recently, enjoyed even more well-deserved successes, to which I am pleased to call attention here. Her book What the Ladybird Heard is receiving an award from the Scottish Book Royal Mail Awards; and her earlier book The Gruffalo has been made into a film and is currently up for an Oscar as best short film.
Now, Ms Donaldson has instructed me not to mention The Gruffalo, or at least not to exaggerate any mention of it; I am not absolutely sure why not, but there we are – I have, and I am unrepentant. I am sure it is well-known and dear to us all, and sometimes, when you have written something so compelling – and again, indeed, so marvellously funny – then you can’t just allow it to let go.
However. What it is also important to say about Ms Donaldson is that she is not only a writer, and a writer of consummate skill, but also a performer: indeed, her writing of stories derived in large part from her performances, and it is to this goal that they show every sign of returning. She would like to be known as writer and performer equally, and this is clearly an absolutely vital part of her repertoire of skills. I would like to add to that a reminder that most of her books are written in rhyme. Some people may feel that rhyme is an easy thing; but it isn’t. Rhyme always runs the risk of sheer absurdity or triteness: Ms Donaldson’s books – indeed it would be proper in most cases to call them poems – steer an extraordinary path between the two.
But, again, there is even more to Ms Donaldson’s work than I have yet made time to say. In conclusion, I would like to highlight her commitment to Artlink Central, a project of which she is patron, and which works to provide artists in schools, prisons, and other places. It is clear, I would say, that within the rich panoply of her work there runs a strong thread of education: not in any programmatic or constrictive sense, but in the sense which is true of the very word ‘education’, of leading people out into broader fields and aspirations than they might otherwise not have had. Quite apart from the Gruffalo; the snail, the monkey in ‘Monkey Puzzle’, perhaps particularly Charlie Cook in his favourite book – all of these are emblems of how the wider experiences to which reading is so important can lead us forward, and can make us think that essential bit harder about where we are, how we are, and where we want to get to.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Julia Donaldson as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.