7 Questions with… Zog and Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson: 'It’s the parents who get most excited when they meet me'

Julia Donaldson, the bestselling author of the last decade, returns to TV this Christmas with her latest magical film - Zog and the Flying Doctors.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 23 December 2020 - 10.11am

Julia Donaldson, the bestselling author of the last decade, returns to TV this Christmas with her latest magical film - Zog and the Flying Doctors.

She’s written more than 210 books, she’s had eight turned into films for the BBC, she’s the best-selling author from any genre in the last decade and she's become a Christmas institution. Move over JK Rowling. Forget about David Walliams. You lost this battle George RR Martin.

Put simply, Julia Donaldson is a phenomenon. And for many parents during lockdown, Donaldson’s books and numerous online activities have proved a lifeline.

Donaldson’s lyrical style, coupled with the stunning and humorous illustrations of Axel Scheffler, have made bedtimes something to look forward to for parents and kids.

BBC/Magic Light Pictures

On Christmas Day, Zog and the Flying Doctors becomes Donaldson’s latest story to become animated for BBC One, brought to life by the acclaimed production team at Magic Light Pictures.

It’s destined to be among the most-watched shows on Christmas Day, with endless repeat viewings from young fans on iPlayer for the rest of the holidays.

We caught up with Donaldson to talk about her 2020, the art of children’s storytelling and the return of Zog…

1. Zog and the Flying Doctors feels particularly timely for 2020…

Magic Lights chose it, but it was totally coincidental. It takes them a couple of years to make the films, so we obviously didn’t know there would be this pandemic going on. It does feel a bit prophetic.

They do ask [before making the film] but it’s up to them really. They are my friends, so I might say, ‘what about this one?’, but really it’s up to them. But then Axel and I really help them and talk to them about how they plan to treat the story, how they will develop the characters and we get to see the work in progress.

2. The story has an inspiring message for young viewers. Do you spend a long while considering the themes?

BBC/Magic Light Pictures

I’m not terribly into messages really. The sequel is more about Pearl than Zog, and the question can a princess or a girl be a doctor and the answer is obviously yes. But messages aren’t at the front of my mind, I always just want to write a good story.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an underlying message. Zog has to be more than an adventure of coincidences.

But there is a line between that and thinking, ‘Oh I want children to share, so I’m going to write a book about sharing’. I wouldn’t want to preach in that way. I think if you have good ideas they will come out in whatever you write.

3. It’s a rare sequel for you. Why did you want to bring back Zog?

I think Zog lends itself to a sequel because at the end of Zog they are all flying off together. So the ending of Zog is a new beginning.  And the rest of the books are more like fables. You wouldn’t do a sequel to the Hare and the Tortoise and a lot of my books have more of that fable-like quality. Zog is an adventure story and it lends itself to a second story.

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4. How excited do kids get when they meet you?

BBC/Magic Light Pictures

It’s actually the parents who get quite excited when they meet me. If you say to a child this is the lady who wrote your favourite story they just think you’re the person who made your favourite book, coloured in the individual pages and glued it all together. So it’s often the parents who get more excited.

As a parent myself, I know that there’s nothing worse than when a child wobbles over to the bookshelf and picks out something that you can’t stand. I always want books that parents will enjoy and I’m trying to write in the most lyrical way and bring a sense of fun. It’s always a great compliment to hear from parents how much fun they are to read as that’s always been my aim.

I do still get pinch myself moments. The really, really exciting time was when The Gruffalo won the Smartie Prize. I remember dancing around my room when I won. I don’t do quite as much dancing around the room these days. But I do still pinch myself.

5.  Is there a particular book you want Magic Light Pictures to make next year?

I would love them at some stage to do the Smeds and the Smoos. Someone was asking me if the Black Lives Matter movement crept into my books and I think the Smeds and the Smoos, well it is about rival aliens, red ones and blues and the prejudices that get overcome. That would be a nice one to do. But that’s not what is coming next. I know what they’re planning next and I’m not allowed to say.

6. How did you keep busy in lockdown?

BBC/Magic Light Pictures

One thing I did was that I did a series of 20 broadcasts. My husband would film us acting out little stories. It’s called Julia Donaldson and Friends and we got the illustrator of each book to talk us through how the drew the characters. I was fascinated to watch the illustrators in action. Lots of people during the lockdown watched those when they weren’t going to school. That kept me very busy.

I’ve also got a very close relationship with my local bookshop and I was signing and dedicating any books they sold on the website. So every evening I’d get a box load of books on my doorstep and I’d spend a couple of hours signing and dedicating them. It was a very busy lockdown.

Funnily enough I didn’t actually do that much writing in the first lockdown. It was more mulling. It was my mulling time.

7. Have you ever considered writing a series for TV or a children’s movie?

BBC/Magic Light Pictures

I’m so busy doing the books, doing the shows and doing all the publicity, it’s hard to think about doing TV or film. Just yesterday I was in the studio recording songs. I’ve had books of poetry published. I’ve had the books about Princess Mirror-Belle, they’re being turned into a series for the BBC next year. So it’s already really busy. When they do the Princess Mirror-Belle series, I will also have a little role in the series which is something new and exciting.

Zog and the Flying Doctors airs on BBC One at 2.35pm on Christmas Day.

Catch up on BBC iPlayer.

The Magical World of Julia Donaldson airs on Wednesday, December 23rd at 7.30pm on BBC Two.

Watch all the shows and sport you love on BT TV

Take a flexible TV package and get access to all your favourite shows and sport, and switch your package whenever you like.