Real life ugly beasts inspire new book by 'Gruffalo' author Donaldson

EDINBURGH (Reuters) – An African safari has inspired a new book by Julia Donaldson in which the creator of children’s favorite “The Gruffalo” homes in on an unsightly bunch of wild animals known as “The Ugly Five.”

A wildebeest, a warthog, a spotted hyena, a lappet-faced vulture and a marabou stork delight in their ungainliness until their view is challenged in a rhyming tale with a gentle twist.

Donaldson’s best-selling stories often combine a message with a hint of comedy by reversing roles or expectations, and the importance of team work comes up again and again.

The new book has the ring of earlier work by the former children’s laureate such as “Stick Man”, “Room on the Broom” and “Zog” and she has again teamed up with long-time collaborator Axel Scheffler, whose drawings evoke fantasy and humor.

“I‘m not setting out to preach, I‘m setting out to tell a story. But I suppose some of (my books) are quite subversive,” Donaldson told Reuters, adding that she likes books like “Princess Mirror-Belle”, where she can indulge her “naughty streak”.

That subversive element — a dragon who is “saved” by a princess, a snail that turns out to have more power than his whale friend, a witch whose ordinary animal friends stage a creative rescue — is something that has global appeal.

“The Gruffalo”, the story of a mythical beast and a clever mouse, has been translated into 40 different languages and sold over 10 million copies.

Author Julia Donaldson and her husband Malcolm pose for a photograph as they promote ‘The Ugly Five’ in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Turner

Now 69, Donaldson has written over two dozen books and outsold any other author — for adults or children — in the UK for the last four years.

She started writing as a very small child after her father gave her a poetry treasury, aged 5.

Later, as a young woman, she busked her way around Europe with her husband Malcolm — who appears with her and other family members in live story performances dressed in an array of character masks.

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She got her first publishing break after penning songs for the BBC where she became “expert at writing to order on such subjects as guinea pigs, window-cleaning and horrible smells”.

Her family has been a great support and inspiration, she says, particularly Malcolm who does a first reading of her new work in a “Dylan Thomas-y voice” to check that the rhymes work.

“We’ll go for walks and I’ll say ‘What do you think of the merry-go-round’, or ‘Do you think the knight should come in first or the dragon’, that kind of thing,” she says.

But she is mystified by her grandchildren’s tastes for things like Star Wars and says she hardly dares read them her own stories.

“I‘m always scared that they’ll get down off my knee and wander away and I’ll feel mortified.”

Reporting by Elisabeth O’Leary, Editing by Pritha Sarkar

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