There was a moment, a couple of months back, when I realised I was a shoo-in for Aunty of the Year.
I was interviewing Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler about a new exhibition celebrating their 30-year collaboration. As creators of some of the world’s best-loved children’s books, I couldn’t leave without acquiring their autographs for my niece. While she is a tad too old for Tabby McTat and The Gruffalo, her bookshelves from early childhood are stuffed full of Donaldson and Scheffler classics.
So, when Scheffler began drawing a personalised Stick Man for my favourite 11-year-old (without any prompting from me, honest), I knew that my ‘best aunty ever’ status was in the bag. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Children everywhere love Donaldson and Scheffler’s books. Last year, Donaldson was the UK’s bestselling author, and that’s across all genres. Meanwhile, Scheffler was the number one bestselling illustrator of 2022.
Michael Simpson, director of visual arts at The Lowry, home to Julia and Axel – Thirty Years of Favourite Stories, knows the appeal of the pair only too well. But how did the exhibition, which is in Salford until January 1, 2024, come about?
“Last summer, we did an exhibition called Picture This which was about children’s books. You can’t do a book exhibition about children’s books without including Julia and Axel so it had Room on the Broom. And it was deliberately aimed as a free, family exhibition. This was when the cost-of-living crisis was really kicking in, and there was a lot of talk about how challenging it would be for families particularly. And we just thought, let’s do a free family exhibition where you can pretty much spend all day in there if you want, reading books and playing games. Anyway, the exhibition went down incredibly well and we were very, very happy with it.
“So, I was talking to the publisher of Julia and Axel and saying, you know, I wonder if we should think about doing Picture This two. And she said, well, 2023 is the 30th anniversary of Julia and Axel working together, so how about an exhibition that celebrates that? I thought, that’s absolutely fantastic. Let’s go for it.”
As envisaged, Julia and Axel – Thirty Years of Favourite Stories, is a free, family-friendly exhibition containing all manner of treats, including Donaldson’s own writing notebooks and a wide selection of Scheffler’s early sketches. With more books than you shake a Stick Man at (all 28, in fact), there’s a lot for children, parents and grandparents to enjoy.
Simpson says: “It was important to make sure that Julia and Axel felt comfortable with what we’re doing. They’re trusting us to do an exhibition that will get it right in terms of all the things that are important to them. And I think our starting point was that we wanted to inspire the Julias and Axels of the next generation, the writers and illustrators of the future.”
Given that Julia and Axel’s books are so well known (try skipping a page while reading to a child and you’ll know what I mean), part of the appeal of the exhibition is learning more about the work that goes in to producing these children’s classics, including how a partnership can sometimes be about compromise – between writer and illustrator, and creator and publisher.
For instance, when I spoke to Scheffler, he told me that Tabby McTat originally had teeth but the publisher thought the teeth were too scary so they were taken out. My cat Seamus, also toothless, will no doubt sympathise.
In addition to the insight into Donaldson and Scheffler’s processes, Simpson and his team want to give every young person an opportunity to be creative.
He explains: “There are loads of activities based around writing or drawing. There are games to play, and there are songs to sing because Julia does a lot of songwriting. Crucially, there’s a whole reading room just full of their books where, as a family, you can just sit down on the sofa and read books for as long as you like.
“The bottom line is this, though. I really want children to feel that they’ve got some insight into the books. So, we’re doing fun facts about each book. And we want children to have lots of things to do. We want them to feel like they can have a good time and for their families to join in with them as well.
“Hand on heart – we just want lots of happy families.”
All artwork by Axel Scheffler
To read Northern Soul’s review of the Julia and Axel exhibition, click here.
To read an interview with Julia and Axel on The Lowry’s website, click here.
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.