A Q&A with Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler

Ahead of the production of Tales From Acorn Wood here at The Courtyard on Wednesday 11 October 2023, Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler give us their thoughts…

Julia Donaldson says: “I am really happy that the Tales from Acorn Wood are now moving to the stage. Fans of the books are bound to enjoy seeing the four main characters – Fox, Bear, Pig and Rabbit – brought to life through Norwell Lapley’s clever staging. Live performance and songs are both very close to my heart and I am sure this production will delight children and families.”

You have been likened to Lennon and McCartney, what song would you say encapsulates your relationship and books?

JD: I think the song ‘Two of Us’ sums it up well!

Music, songs and lyrics are very important to you, as are they in the stage adaption of Tales from Acorn Wood Live. What do you like best about live performance and why is it important to children?

JD: I remember being taken to see The Nutcracker when I was small and that experience has stayed with me, so I now enjoy seeing children’s responses to what is maybe their first experience of theatre.

What was the inspiration behind the Tales From Acorn Wood books?

JD: Tales from Acorn Wood came from a conversation with my editor at Macmillan Children’s
Books. I had already written The Gruffalo and Monkey Puzzle, but they hadn’t yet been published. I was asked if I could write four books with flaps for young children, featuring animals who wore clothes! (Axel had originally imagined that the characters in The Gruffalo would be dressed but had been persuaded to change his mind, so perhaps the idea was to give him that opportunity.)

One of my initial ideas was for a story about a mother rabbit singing a lullaby to her baby about the Rabbit in the Moon and the Rabbit in the Hill, but the publisher wasn’t so keen and told me that the flaps needed to be real ones, such as cupboard doors, rather than flaps in the moon or a hill, so I abandoned that idea. I then became obsessed with flaps and went round noticing them everywhere, from windows and picnic baskets to loo seats!

The Tales from Acorn Wood books are only 6 spreads long, so I needed to create a satisfying story in such a short space. Each book needed the same pattern: the flaps needed to be on the right hand side for the printing to work and the last spread needed a scene where all the characters joined together for a final moment. Altogether it was quite a challenge, but of the kind that I enjoy, just as I enjoy doing crossword puzzles.

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How did you bring the world of Acorn Wood to life? What inspired you?

AS: My inspiration comes from Julia’s wonderful texts. I love the world the characters live in, which I am able to create and develop, as it’s not described in the words as much as it is in the picture books we publish together. I’ve always enjoyed drawing small pictures with small characters, living in a small and rather harmonious world where there are only very small disturbances. Especially when those small characters are wearing clothes. I think what I like best is the the fairytale world they live in.

I always hope that nobody looks too critically at the scale of the characters : it could happen that a squirrel is as big as a pig, or a duck is smaller than a mole. Many things are possible in picture book land!

Axel Scheffler says: “I have always enjoyed illustrating the Tales from Acorn Wood stories; the wide cast of animal friends is fun to draw and I enjoy developing their world through my pictures. I am very pleased that the Norwell Lapley team is using state of the art staging and technology to create a brilliant experience for children and I am looking forward to seeing it all, especially how they create the lift-the flap effects on stage!”

What do you most like about Axel’s illustrations for the Acorn Wood Books?

JD: I really love the interiors! Many of our other joint books have an outdoor setting, but I really like Axel’s pictures of chairs and clocks and cupboards. I think he could have another career as a furniture designer!

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What is your top tip for sharing Tales From Acorn Wood books with little ones? How would you bring them to life when reading for others?

JD: The tactile lift-the-flap element is engaging for smaller children and the older ones relate to the day to day adventures and the combined humour of the stories and the illustrations.

Which is your favourite character in The Tales from Acorn Wood?

JD: Of the first four books, Fox’s Socks is my favourite story. I identify with him losing things at home! From the newer books, I feel the same about Mole’s Spectacles. Cat’s Cookbook is also a favourite as it is a celebration of libraries.

AS: I don’t really have any favourite characters in the Acorn Wood books, but I can sympathise with Postman Bear as I still write letters myself and I like the winter world of Squirrel’s Snowman. I’m happy to see so many of them performing music together.

Are you looking forward to seeing the characters as puppets?

AS: It’s always interesting to see my characters being transformed from two into three dimensions. I do find that one just mustn’t be too emotionally attached to them. I’m looking forward to seeing the puppets and to seeing what state of the art stage technology has to offer. Though I refuse any kind of innovation in my own work – I’m impressed what can be done with computer generated imagery in animation for instance.

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Your illustrations have been brought to life both on the screen and stage. NLP will be using state of the art projection technology and a mix of traditional scenery, how do you feel about this?

JD: As we live in an increasingly digital age, there are all sorts of new staging possibilities emerging. Norwell Lapley has done a brilliant job of integrating the flaps in an exciting and visual way, reflecting the homes of the different characters.

You do a fair bit of performing yourself. What are you up to at present?

JD: I’m doing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe called The Gruffalo, The Giant and The Mermaid, which features seven of my stories – some of the Axel ones and others by different illustrators. There are five actors, and I get to be a scarecrow, a stand-offish Go-Away Bird, and the Mouse in The Gruffalo. Excitingly, we are using British Sign Language in our dramatization of The Gruffalo, so I’ve had to learn the signs for Deep Dark Wood, Roasted Fox, Owl Ice cream, Scrambled Snake and Gruffalo Crumble!

Book Tickets to Tales From Acorn Wood here

© Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler and Macmillan Children’s Books 2022

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