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on Thu, 03 Nov 2016
For children's novelist Julia Donaldson a stick is not just a stick – it is a whole new world of imagination. That imagination led to her storybook Stick Man which proved to be a best-seller before being successfully adapted for the stage.
Created by Scamp Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, the stage show is heading to Warwick Arts Centre this November/December, but the story began as a simple idea - that a stick is more than a stick. What sparked the book was an image created by Axel Scheffler who has illustrated many of Julia's books including The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man. Unprompted by Julia, he drew the Gruffalo's Child holding a stick doll in an image which formed the cover sleeve of that book.
“The Gruffalo's Child has a little stick doll and then that set me thinking about sticks and how they can become so many different things,” says Julia. “I remembered how when my sons were little they would play with sticks and they would be everything.
“I thought about this for some time and how a stick can be mistaken by lots of different creatures for lots of different things. So it can become the mast of a sand castle, it can become a stick for a dog, it can become a bat for a bat and ball game.”
And so the story of Stick Man evolved. In the imaginations of both Julia and Axel the character and the tale developed into a fully illustrated narrative.
The story centres on Stick Man who lives in the family tree with his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three. When he decides to venture outside, Stick Man quickly discovers that being a stick makes him a very attractive toy and tool for lots of different people and animals. Taken on a whirlwind adventure, all he really wants is to be back home in his family tree.
Julia admits that it took her a while to move from the original idea to the final story. She played around with a good many ideas before completing the writing.
“I did think about putting Stick Man in different houses like that of the Three Little Pigs but the more I thought about it the more complicated it got and I wasn't sure about including all of those fairy tales,” she says. “I also thought about whether I wanted Stick Man to be a little more active and not so passive as lots of things happen to him rather than him making them happen.”
Julia did however quickly have an idea of how she wanted her story to conclude – with Santa Claus playing a pivotal role in the story.
“I tend to plan a book in my head and I can't really start until I also have an end in my head,” she says. “I have an idea and then I need to really develop it. People think it's enough to just have an idea in your head but you have to develop it through to an end.
“I knew from very early on that I wanted to get Stick Man back to his tree and I needed someone to do that. I liked the idea of him being dropped into the tree and the obvious person to do that was Santa Claus.
“And it also fitted with the idea of the book travelling through the seasons. The story reflects the changes in the seasons – it's not just a Christmas story.”
Published in 2009, Stick Man quickly became a family favourite and Julia could also see its potential as a possible stage show. Keen on interacting with her readers, she was actually performing the story before the book was even published.
“I first did Stick Man at a book festival and we had the family tree as a stepladder covered with camouflage and the characters were puppets. So my sister and I were there with our hands filled with Stick Lady Love and the stick children three and we got to the bit where Santa drops Stick Man and my sister dropped him and I caught him and there was a real gasp from the audience. When we heard that gasp in just the right place we knew we had it right.”
But Julia was looking for something a bit more ambitious in terms of staging her work more professionally.
“It was actually me who approached Scamp Theatre. I went to see their production of Aesop's Fables while I was at the Edinburgh Festival and I really loved what they did. So I asked my agent to approach them about staging some of my work.
“Initially we were talking about a show which brought together a selection of my books and they did then do that with Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales. Out of all of these discussions came the idea of stagingStick Man.
“And having seen how Scamp work and the way the children responded to their theatre, I was confident they would do something very imaginative. Scamp's show is quite different from any of the things I had done. I knew they would be padding it out with more songs and music to make it into a full length show. Their theatre is very physical and they are very inventive with props so I knew they would do lots of interesting things with it.”
Working together with Watford Palace Theatre, Scamp Theatre devised their show, directed by Sally Cookson. Julia largely left the theatre company to their own devices although she asked for a few minor changes at first rehearsal. With these changes in place she knew they had created something special for children.
“I just loved its energy and the music,” she says. “I love the way that they get just the right level of audience participation – it keeps everyone involved.”
And she believes the show is bringing new audiences to her work.
“It's a win win situation for all of us,” she says. “The fact that the book is already popular encourages people to go and see it and a lot of the children who go do so because they know the book. But I think it is different when you have a school group go and see it as not all of those children will have read it. And so it brings new children to the story.”
Julia saw her first book A Squash and a Squeeze published when she was in her mid 40s and has been a prolific writer since, publishing well over 100 books as well as plays, songs, musicals and poems. While all families will have their firm favourites, best-sellers have included Zog, The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child, Wriggle and Roar! and One Ted Falls Out of Bed while her most recent book The Paper Dolls is short-listed for the Scottish Children's Book Awards 2014.
An avid reader as a child, Julia knew from a very young age that she wanted to tell stories – and share them with other people. As a children's author who has also written teen fiction, Julia knows the value of fiction to young people.
“These days a lot of schools are doing projects on particular books and very often they are my books. Every month I get about 30 schools sending me bundles of letters from about 30 to 60 children who are doing a project on one of my books.
“For me the greatest pleasure comes from reading a book and all that the imagination can bring to that experience. I don't see books and television and theatre as competing with each other. What matters is that children have the opportunity to experience that pleasure of reading a book.
“And the whole experience of theatre is also something magical – especially for children who have not been to the theatre before. I went to the theatre to see Where the Rainbow Ends as a child and that is something I still remember. That memory and that experience of theatre will stay with them for ever.”
Although that's not to say that children's theatre has always been given its due.
“Theatre for children can struggle to get reviewed,” says Julia. “I think it can be difficult for children's theatre to be taken seriously by the media even though it can be of a very high standard and is very popular.
“But actually in that it is not so different from children's fiction. Around one in four books published is a children's book but if you look at review pages in the papers you will probably find only one in 40 reviews is for a children's book – they are all for adults. You can read pages of reviews but then you have to look online for reviews of children's books.”
Julia was Children's Laureate for 2011-13, having now handed the baton to Noughts and Crosses writer Malorie Blackman, and she is a passionate advocate for children's fiction and theatre.
“I do a lot of events and book signings and while some of the people will say they have read my books sometimes it is someone who knows the story because they have seen it in the theatre. Either way they have responded to it and remembered it.”