The renowned children’s author, playwright and performer tells about the unique collaboration that informed her latest picture book, What the Jackdaw Saw – a tale in which sign language plays a crucial role…
How did the idea for the book first come about?
One of my commitments during my time as Children’s Laureate [from 2011 to 2013] was to promote stories for and about deaf children. Despite being a hearing-aid user myself, I didn’t consider myself an expert – I can neither sign nor lip-read – so I threw myself open to requests from more experienced sources and one of them was from the deafness charity Life & Deaf, inviting me to participate in a workshop to help deaf children create their own picture book.
What did the workshop involve?
The aim was for 20 deaf children, mostly from Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, to write and illustrate a picture book with a theme of deafness. The children and their teacher had already come up with the title What the Jackdaw Saw and some storyline ideas. I explained how picture books need to combine drama with a patterned structure, and after some discussion we decided that the hearing jackdaw could be inviting some deaf animals to his party, but that they would all be making the ‘danger’ sign, which he was unable to understand.
The children then divided into groups, with some working on the language for the different scenes of the book while others worked with the illustrators, drawing the animals and landscapes on a frieze of paper. Every now and then Jane Thomas – one of Life & Deaf’s founder members and a gifted teacher – used a flip chart to do a progress report. I was so grateful for her support, as I could never have managed to structure the day and hold the children’s attention single-handed. The best part of the day was at the end, when the children acted out the story they had all helped to create. As Children’s Laureate I had been encouraging children to perform stories and poems, but I had rarely seen any do so with such panache.
Can you tell us more about your own experiences of hearing loss?
I was in my early 20s when I first started to notice that I was losing sounds – birdsong and the occasional snippet of dialogue at the cinema – but just put it down to being ‘one of those things’. However, at 29, when my first child was born, I realised that I couldn’t always hear him crying when he was in another room, which prompted me to have my hearing tested. It emerged that I had some degree of inner-ear deafness, with graphs showing an unusual ‘biscuit’ curve; my hearing of high and low frequencies was not too bad, but I had difficulty with middle frequencies.
My hearing of higher frequencies has gradually deteriorated since then, I now wear aids in both ears and have become reasonably adept at devising helpful strategies. When answering questions during school visits, for example, I position a special ‘question chair’ beside me for the children to sit on one by one. At book festivals and other events for adults I like there to be a roving microphone and always ask the chairperson to recap any audience questions.
Have you had any chance yet to gauge people’s responses to What the Jackdaw Saw?
I was delighted when the BBC’s See Hear programme featured the book and asked some young deaf children for their reactions, which were all very positive. One said “It’s really amazing because there’s signing, cochlear implants, hearing aids, and because the book involves deaf people you know what they’re signing” – which I thought was a really interesting comment, as though just the incidental addition of cochlear implants and hearing aids immediately makes the book more accessible to deaf people.
But it’s not just for deaf children. My own grandchildren are fascinated by sign language (they particularly like watching Mr Tumble sign in Makaton on television), and I’m sure that they and other hearing children will enjoy the story’s mystery of why all the animals are touching their heads and learning the signs that Nick has illustrated at the back of the book.
Is it a topic that you’ve explored in your previous work – perhaps through portrayals of characters and allusions that some readers might not be aware of?
What the Jackdaw Saw is the second book I’ve written – or in this case, co-written – featuring deafness. Freddie and the Fairy, illustrated by Karen George, is the story of a hard-of-hearing fairy and a mumbling child. Because the child doesn’t speak clearly and covers his mouth with his hand, the fairy mishears his wishes and conjures up a ‘frog’ instead of a ‘dog’, a ‘carrot’ instead of a ‘parrot’ and so on.
Those are the only two books I’ve written specifically about deafness, but I’m always happy when my illustrators include hearing aids or cochlear implants among the characters. Nick Sharratt is particularly good at this; a monkey in one of our joint books, Goat Goes to Playground, sports a lovely green hearing aid. Some hearing children might think it’s an earring, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that deaf children love spotting it in the book.
What are your thoughts on current portrayals of disability within children’s fiction?
I think they are leaps and bounds further on than they were when I was younger, particularly in books for the educational market. I’ve written a series of phonics reading books, Songbirds Phonics, and a series of classroom plays, Plays to Read, and was impressed at how the educational publishers were committed to including pictures of children of different ethnicities in wheelchairs and wearing glasses. I wouldn’t want all authors to feel they have a duty to write about disability, but maybe publishers of trade books could show a greater commitment to including at least a few such titles on their lists.
What the Jackdaw Saw is available now in print, and as an audiobook CD that also includes a video of the story being signed; further information about Julia Donaldson can be found at www.juliadonaldson.co.uk
– Julia Donaldson previously worked in publishing, as a teacher and as a professional singer/songwriter for children’s television; her literary career began in 1993 after one of her songs, ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ was adapted into a picture book illustrated by Axel Scheffler
– 1999 saw the publication of The Gruffalo – another collaboration with Scheffler that met with enormous popular and critical acclaim. Since translated into 45 languages, it has gone on to sell over 5 million copies, been performed on Broadway and adapted into an animated TV film voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter, Robbie Coltrane and John Hurt
– Donaldson regularly performs live on stage alongside her musician husband Malcolm; the couple and several other cast members will perform Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts at the Underbelly from 6th-31st August as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival