Julia Donaldson on seeing Tabby McTat adapted for the stage

Julia Donaldson is one of the most well-known children’s authors in the UK. The modern classic The Gruffalo has sold over 13 million copies worldwide. Many of her books have made terrific stage adaptations.

Freckle Productions are now bringing Tabby McTat to the stage. They’ve previously worked on Stick Man and Zog so they’ll know their way around family friendly theatre.

Ahead of performances at Leeds Playhouse from 31 October to 2 November, Julia Donaldson talks about her inspiration for Tabby McTat, and seeing her work adapted for the stage.

You’ve written almost 200 books – where do you get your ideas?

It varies, but I always develop the storyline fully in my head before I start writing. I think you read some books and you can tell that people have just made it up as they go along – but I always think, you wouldn’t start telling a joke if you didn’t know what the punchline was.

Where did the idea for Tabby McTat come from?

I’d published Stick Man the previous year, and my editor said it would be nice to have something a bit more cuddly, because Stick Man is very hard and wooden. I’ve always been a cat lover, and I remember sitting on a train and thinking of cat ideas.

I started with the fact that cats have owners, and who might that be? Could it be a burglar or a policeman? And as I’ve been a busker myself, I thought Tabby could be a busker’s cat, and that the two of them could be separated in some way. So that part of the story came to me during that train journey. 

I knew that Tabby and Fred the busker would eventually come back together again, but I didn’t know how, and it was actually my husband Malcolm’s idea. He said to me, ‘it would be nice if it went down to the next generation’, so that bit of the story came from him.

In a way, Tabby McTat is my most complex picture book because instead of it simply being about someone who has an aspiration, or somebody who faces difficulties but gets what they want in the end, it’s about being torn. To begin with, Tabby just wants to get back to Fred the busker, who he’s been separated from. Then he falls in love and has a family, but he still thinks about Fred and is torn between the two until that gets resolved by the next generation.

You say you were a busker yourself in the past – did you enjoy that?

Yes, I loved it. I started busking with a friend when I was a student in Paris – and then Malcolm, my now husband, came to join us and extended our repertoire incredibly, because we could hardly play anything before him. It was a brilliant way to have a holiday because every time Malcolm and I went away, we would just buy our flights and then pay for all our accommodation and food by busking.

Animals feature very strongly in many of your books – why is that?

It’s often used as a convention – like in Aesop’s Fables, where the animals aren’t really animals, they represent a quality or a characteristic. 

I also think it would be far more boring for the reader or listener if Mouse in The Gruffalo was just a small but clever person, or The Gruffalo itself was a big, scary but rather stupid person. 

But Tabby McTat isn’t really a fable, it’s more of a story and much more realistic in a way – and there are animals in it mainly just because I like cats.

Your books always have a happy ending, which is very comforting; do you think it’s important to give that to your readers?

I often think about the role of storytelling for young people. In life, not everything does have a happy ending – but I think storytelling is probably very important because to grow up with stories helps you have aspirations, even if life doesn’t turn out like that. 

Even as grown-ups, we know that there is a lot of sadness in life, but I think if we didn’t have those stories, aspirations and a sense of what’s ideal, life would be much harder to live.

You’ve had a long and very successful working relationship with illustrator Axel Scheffler – how does the partnership work?

It’s always through the editor – I never exchange a word with Axel about the pictures when we’re putting a book together. Axel probably wouldn’t even know that I was writing something until my editor shows it to him – and then I have a nail-biting moment wondering if he likes it and wants to do it. 

Then he’ll do some character sketches which I’ll look at. Sometimes, after he’s created sketches for every picture, I’ll think ‘oh hang on, I’m going to change that little bit of text, because I like what he’s done with that’. And then Axel will get to work seriously and I’ll see it at a later stage, when there will still be a few little tweaks.

As you’re writing, you must visualise characters in your head. What’s it like when an illustrator then comes up with something different?

I always say it’s like going on holiday – you’ve got an idea in your head of how it’s going to be, and then it’s always totally different. But once you’re there and enjoying it, you just forget what was in your head before.

Also, I usually know when I’m writing something whether I want Axel to work on it – in which case I’ve got his style in my head as I’m working. It doesn’t influence the storyline, but it will influence how I picture the characters – so I’m usually not surprised when I see Axel’s interpretation.

What’s it like for you when people turn your books into stage performances?

For me, it’s like an extension of working with an illustrator. Handing it over to a theatre company or film company you know it’s going to change, but you have to let it go. I’m invariably impressed by the energy and talent of the cast. The stage productions always include songs and although I’m occasionally a bit critical (being a songwriter myself), I especially enjoyed the catchy numbers in Tabby McTat.

What do you feel a visit to the theatre gives young children?

Well, I remember going to see The Nutcracker when I was a child and I found the whole thing completely magical. I can still remember how I felt when the curtain went up. 

I suppose in a way it’s the same thing that a book gives you, in that while you’re reading or watching, you believe in a different reality. And if it’s a good show, parents love to see that their children – even very young ones – can just be transfixed by it.

Tabby McTat is in the Courtyard at Leeds Playhouse from 31 October to 2 November. 

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