Axel Scheffler, one might argue, is getting desperate. The illustrator of Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo is hoping against hope that a character akin to the mouse from that much-loved book might yet rescue Britain and Europe from the morass of Brexit.

You know you’re in a sorry state when your last best hope is a cartoon rodent. But Scheffler, a 62-year-old German who has lived and worked in England for almost 40 years, has been vocal in his praise for the EU, remarking that his prolific partnership with Donaldson might not have happened without it. During the 2016 referendum campaign he penned a rare political cartoon – ‘There’s no such thing as a Brusselo!’ – that parodied the Euro-wielding monster he saw as being used to scare Britons into voting Leave. Fast-forward almost three years to the current calamity, and Scheffler admits to being “extremely pessimistic” about the state of the world.

“It would be nice if a character like the mouse came up within the next two weeks to save Great Britain,” he says. “Somebody very clever who could sort it out and save the world.”

The mouse might not be able to save the world but he, along with his fellow inhabitants from the Deep Dark Wood, has certainly conquered it. The Gruffalo has sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, been translated into at least 43 languages, and spawned an Oscar-nominated animated film as well as West End and Broadway plays. Donaldson and Scheffler have created a total of 21 books together so far, with number 22, The Smeds and The Smoos, expected in September. Professionally, then, the pair have plenty to smile about.

Yet speaking to Northern Soul at the Gruffalo’s 20th birthday party, hosted by Hulme’s Z-Arts exactly two decades and one day after the book was first published, both reflect that the planet has not had an easy time in the years since March 1999.

“There are lot of new threats from global warming, to right-wing populism and threats to our democratic societies that weren’t there 20 years ago. I feel very gloomy about the state of the world,” says Scheffler. “But as long as I keep doing picture books it’s not too bad, so I haven’t stopped believing in the future completely.”

Donaldson shares this sentiment. “I do think that I am very glad to be doing what I’m doing,” she says. “Because I think however many awful things are going on in the world, there’s a basic need for stories, for hope. Even if stories are unrealistic and things don’t really always end up with a happy ending, if you didn’t have the stories people wouldn’t have this idea of what to aim for. So I think Axel and I are doing very valuable jobs and that does kind of cheer me up when I get gloomy about the world.”

Perhaps it is this that keeps Donaldson going. At 70-years-old and with 184 published works under her belt, she is looking forward to publication of The Smeds and The Smoos which, she tells us, is about two tribes of aliens (“a kind of Romeo and Juliet story set in outer space”) and is always “more delighted” when a reader says that their favourite of her works is a recent one, such as The Scarecrows’ Wedding or the The Ugly Five, than an earlier classic.

“I’m not saying it’s not my favourite,” she says of The Gruffalo, with the kind of defensiveness one reserves for a slightly irksome elderly pet. “It’s just that there’s so much about The Gruffalo, so one does get a little touch of Gruffalo fatigue sometimes.”

This fatigue is not shared, it would seem, by the junior reading public. Book sales and the associated merchandising juggernaut are still going strong, and the monster – complete with terrible tusks, claws, and teeth – features prominently in the wonderful A World Inside a Book exhibition that has recently arrived at Manchester’s Z-Arts from the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford. The exhibition allows children to interact with Donaldson and Scheffler’s books brought into physical form – riding the witch’s truly magnificent broom, checking in at Zog’s dragon school or riding the whale in place of the snail – but it is undoubtedly the Gruffalo who is the headline act. Why so? Donaldson has her “eight word answer” well rehearsed.

“Good story, good rhymes, bit scary, great pictures.” Scheffler, by contrast, muses at length. “There are lots of reasons, the story is really great to read aloud, there seems to be a general appeal of this theme of the little one outwitting the strong, dangerous creature. Children quite like the ambivalent nature of the Gruffalo. On the one hand he’s really scary and not bad but hungry but on the other hand he’s quite likeable…it is a very complex story and there are lots of things one could think about, such as whether it is OK to lie.”

“That’s a thesis,” Donaldson quips when he’s finished, but her joke reflects a truth which is how big a part of the duo’s lives their shared creations have become. Has Scheffler’s interpretation of one of her characters ever surprised her?

“Nowadays with Axel I know his style so well I don’t get any nasty surprises,” she says, prompting the illustrator to chuckle that he is predictable. “Right at the beginning, I was really surprised when I saw the witch in Room on the Broom. I’d envisaged a much younger witch. But very, very soon she just became the witch. I always say to people it’s like when you go on holiday you have a picture of Corfu or something in your head and when you get there it’s different but you soon forget how you imagined it.”

By Fran Yeoman


A World Inside a Book runs at Z-Arts in Hulme until February 2020. For more information, click here.