Outside The Lowry in Salford, visitors are greeted by a 7ft tall wood carving of the Gruffalo, complete with black tongue, orange eyes and a purple, spiky back. The figure makes a fitting start for an exhibition which brings much-loved stories to life with a wondrous vividness.
Julia and Axel: Thirty Years of Favourite Stories celebrates the professional partnership between Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Together, they have created some of the world’s best-loved and bestselling children’s books, including Stick Man, Room on the Broom, and Zog. The exhibition clearly has young kids at the heart of the experience – drawing, writing, playing and dressing up, they are encouraged to explore the characters from their favourite books and use their imagination. The tiny costumes in the dress up station, low book cases and panels at their eye level show children that this is an environment designed for them. The massive illustrations adorning the walls will no doubt immerse children in the stories as they stare up at the smartest giant in town and lose themselves in Tiddler’s ocean.
There is a deliberate and pleasing absence of technology, with the displays, games and books providing stimuli which encourage more imagination than a screen and are just as fun. Each book is given close attention and consideration meaning that every child, no matter their favourite tale, will experience it in a new and exciting way. As the summer holidays begin and the Salford weather treats us to yet more cloudy skies, this exhibition will be a joyful escape from the drizzle.
While young children are at the centre of this experience, there is much for older kids and their parents. The exhibition takes us on a creative journey alongside Donaldson and Scheffler, from their childhoods to first working together, to their continued success in being a bedtime staple in millions of homes. Various iterations of sketches from Scheffler are displayed all over the space, as we see rough pencil doodles slowly morph into the colourful creations we know today. Likewise, Donaldson’s original notebooks of ideas are left open in display cases. It is fascinating to see the genesis of the word ‘Gruffalo’, written hastily on lined paper as a rhyme for ‘ought to know’, juxtaposed with coins and stamps featuring the beloved beast.
Within this vibrant kaleidoscope is a peaceful reading room with comfortable sofas and bean bags where adults and children can share a quiet moment and read their favourite book together. Whether a final activity after a busy hour or a springboard for kids to launch into exploration, the books themselves are left neatly in cases, itching to be picked up by hands of all sizes.
Julia and Axel is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly digital, pressurised world. It offers a space for young children to wander, ponder and create while allowing older siblings and parents a nostalgic return to story time. Joyous.
All artwork by Axel Scheffler
Julia and Axel: Thirty Years of Favourite Stories is at The Lowry, Salford until January 1, 2024. Entry is free. For more information, click here.