How We Met: Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler

'Sometimes he'll say things like, "I don't want to draw any more trees!"'

Axel Scheffler, 54

Scheffler has illustrated 15 books for children's author Julia Donaldson over the course of 20 years of collaboration, including 'The Snail and the Whale' and the award-winning 'The Gruffalo'. He lives in south London with his partner.

I'd only done one or two picture books when I was approached by a publisher to illustrate Julia's first story [A Squash and a Squeeze], in 1992. Other illustrators had already turned it down – possibly because it was in rhyme, which was unpopular at the time. But at college I'd always been taught not to turn things down, and I liked the philosophy behind it, which was based on an Eastern European Jewish folk tale.

With that first book, I remember drawing the main character, an old lady with a pointy nose and chin and looking wrinkly, as it was how I imagined her. But our publisher wanted her to look rounder and friendlier; it was my first big compromise in a career of compromises. Each illustrator has to decide if they want to do that, but ultimately compromise is the nature of collaboration.

We didn't actually meet until the book-launch party; it was a good first encounter and there was a great connection. Since then we've gone walking together and even done stage shows [of the books] in Germany. But like most illustrators, I'm shy and introverted; we do drawings at home. If I'd wanted to be on stage, I would have chosen another profession!

I think when we first started working together Julia quite often thought, "That's not what I had in mind for the character!" But the thing about Julia is that she never said anything. It's the deal we have: Julia accepts my illustrations and I accept her text.

We've been [creative] partners for 20 years now. While I liked the text of The Gruffalo, I didn't realise its potential initially. But librarians championed it and it took off: it was a validation of our pairing and has led to so many other books. With the [Gruffalo] design, I started with a scarier Gruffalo, with bigger teeth and claws but our editor said, "Make him more friendly." When I show kids my other version now, they always prefer the scary one. Kids like to be confronted with injury and death.

Julia Donaldson MBE, 64

The current Children's Laureate is a publishing sensation, penning more than 150 works since her debut in 1993. She lives in Glasgow.

A Squash and a Squeeze was a song for 15 years before it became a book, in 1993. Publishers told me about this German illustrator living in London who could illustrate the book. I don't think I had much of a say at the time, but I'm so glad now that the other two illustrators they asked first declined. My first impression of Axel was of a quiet and serious man. But now, as we've got to know one another, I've discovered his wonderful dry humour; he's always coming out with witty one-liners.

There's a wonderful humour to his drawings, too. With our first book, for example, I loved how he illustrated the story [about an elderly lady unhappy with the size of her farmhouse] from the animals' point of view, with funny touches such as a picture of a cow dumping [a pat] on the [kitchen] table. I don't like some European artists as they can be pretentious, but Axel's not a vain illustrator and he won't say things like, "My colour palette is beige with a touch of red." He's always responsive to the [needs of the] story.

But in my early books, such as Room on the Broom [about a kindly witch and her cat travelling by broomstick], I do remember thinking things such as, "Does [the witch] have to look so old? And look at her [huge] nose!" Now I know his style so well I don't get huge surprises any more. Though sometimes he'll say things like, "I don't want to draw any more trees!"

So much has been said about The Gruffalo, and now there are even Gruffalo-themed weddings. But Axel is [still] telling the story about how, when he shows kids the original Gruffalo drawings, they prefer the scarier one.

Initially, it was through him sending me pictures for fun that I got to know him personally. He started sending letters and postcards – he still does – and he would decorate the envelopes with paintings, or incorporate a stamp of the Queen and turn it into one of the Queen mounted on a Gruffalo. And when my eldest son died [committing suicide following a long battle with mental illness, aged 25], shortly before Christmas [2003], Axel sent me this lovely picture of a Gruffalo holding a candle with the message, "A little light in the darkness." It was so thoughtful; Axel's a kind man.

The 20th anniversary edition of 'A Squash and a Squeeze' is out now (Macmillan, £6.99, juliadonaldson.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before