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Gruffalo and Superworm author Julia Donaldson says children’s literature deserves more respect

Author Julia Donaldson has told Sky News that children’s literature isn’t given the respect it deserves.

The writer, best known as the creator of the Gruffalo, said she is frustrated by how little thought the media gives to highlighting the literary choices available to parents.

Donaldson, whose 2012 book Superworm has been adapted into a TV animation which airs on Christmas Day, said: “I don’t think it’s given the respect it deserves at all.

Superworm has been turned into a TV animation for Christmas Day. Pic: BBC/Magic Light Pictures
Image: Superworm, narrated by Olivia Colman, airs on Christmas Day. Pic: BBC/Magic Light Pictures

“People are always talking about how they want children not to use gadgets so much, they want children to be more literate, and yet when you look at reviews of children’s books – which probably account for at least a third of the market of all books – in some newspaper supplements, you’re lucky if you get one column.”

So prolific is the former children’s laureate that, in the UK, a Julia Donaldson book is bought about every 11 seconds. In the last decade, she has sold more than 27 million copies of her work, making her the biggest-selling author in any age group or genre.

“I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say there was any vanity to it,” she admitted. “I think all children might want to be recognised and be famous. I’m sure I was no different from anyone else.”

Having written more than 210 books, Donaldson is a big supporter of ensuring her work is available for free through libraries, saying it is “ridiculous” and “very short sighted” for councils not to support “these wonderful resources”.

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“As far as I’m aware, they are used well by children, but even if they weren’t then the problem should be, ‘Oh, how do we get them into libraries?’ Not ‘let’s just close the library down’.”

Superworm will be the ninth festive special of Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler’s work for the BBC. Narrated by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, Doctor Who and The Crown star Matt Smith voices the lead worm himself.

Author Julia Donaldson with her CBE for services to Literature after an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, London, in May 2019
Image: Author Julia Donaldson was awarded a CBE for services to literature in 2019

While many families will be familiar with the story, its words and rhythms committed to memory, Superworm’s opening rhyme scheme could have sounded very different.

“I did have a different introductory couplet,” Donaldson said. “It was going to be, ‘Superworm is long and pink, Superworm can grow and shrink’, because, you know, I wanted him to be able to become a belly dancer or something very tall or whatever.

“But someone said to me, ‘Ahh, Julia, I think there might be, you know, a bit of sniggering about those lines’. So I did change them [so] there’s no double entendre.”

The Christmas Pine. Pic: Alison Green Books
Image: The Christmas Pine is Donaldson’s latest story. Pic: Alison Green Books

As well as having Superworm adapted for TV, Donaldson also has a new book out. The Christmas Pine is based on a true story of the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, with pictures by Norwegian illustrator Victoria Sandøy.

The author said she felt honoured to play a part in the “healing time” that bedtime stories can provide. “If you’ve had your ups and downs during the day and you’re having a cuddle and sharing a story, that’s lovely, it is very nice to be part of that.”

And while millions will be tuning in to watch Superworm on 25 December, it isn’t what the author would typically do.

“I never used to watch television when I was a child and I still don’t, I still prefer playing party games,” she said. “But we will sit down and watch Superworm, I’m sure.”

You can watch Superworm on BBC One on Christmas Day at 2.30pm and also streamed on BBC iPlayer