The Snail and the Whale is set to be essential Christmas Day telly – and its creator Julia Donaldson is hoping it will inspire children to be more like Greta Thunberg.
Children’s author Julia, 71, is a huge fan of the young Swedish activist – and reckons the BBC animation’s message of “Save the Whale” chimes with the current focus on the state of our oceans.
Julia, who also wrote The Gruffalo and Stick Man, said: “All the children I know are terribly aware – partly thanks to the David Attenborough programmes – of the plastic in the ocean and global warming.
“The story is not just about the snail but the snail represents one child, and children and a school actually doing something for the environment.”
She backs the idea of kids taking part in Greta’s school strikes to raise awareness of climate change and would support her eight grandchildren taking part.
Alex Scheffler, who illustrates her top tales, has already taken his 12-year-old daughter on a climate change demo in their native Germany.
Julia said: “I think it’s great really but I’m obviously thinking in moderation. I don’t think it would be a good idea for all of them to take days off here and there.
“But it’s very inspiring – younger people are making themselves heard.”
Julia has captured the hearts of millions of children across the world.
Honoured with a CBE, the former children’s laureate has written more than 150 books.
She has earned more than £30million thanks to the films, merchandise and theme park rides.
The Gruffalo has been translated into 43 languages and together with its sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, sold more than 17million copies.
The Snail and the Whale airs on BBC One after being brought to life by production company Magic Light Pictures – just like The Gruffalo, Zog and The Highway Rat before it.
Narrated by Dame Diana Rigg, it tells the heart-warming story of a tiny sea snail – voiced by The Shape of Water star Sally Hawkins.
After a round-the-world adventure, she saves the life of a grey-blue humpback whale, voiced by Rob Brydon.
And her books have helped not just children, but also mums and dads, through the highs and the lows of parenthood.
Julia – who splits her time between Sussex and Edinburgh – revealed she received heartbreaking fan mail, as her books, such as Room on the Broom, often play an important part in helping sick children through an illness or bereavement.
Julia said: “Very, very often, I’ll get someone writing saying one of their children has died and the older one got some solace from reading the book or asking if one of my books could be buried with their child.
“There was a child with leukaemia and they sent me a video of their child reciting Room on the Broom. This particular child was going to die and I did a video back.
“I’d say in any batch of fan mail there is always one letter like that or about a child like that.”
Julia loves meeting her young fans and their parents and grandparents at book signings – and also at the shows she puts on in schools and theatres.
She said: “It’s wonderful. They often say, ‘Thank you for so many hours of joy reading to the children’. I know what they mean because I have read to my children.
“But I’m modest enough to not totally take all the credit for that because it’s the parents who love their children and the children who love their parents.
“You sneak in there with your book and there is this rosy halo of comfort and love, so you have to be a little bit modest.”
She is also proud when she hears her books have helped autistic children interact with friends and family.
She said: “I’m very often contacted about autistic children. I get ones saying, ‘My child didn’t talk or was autistic and couldn’t read but learned with your books’.
“I’m sure other authors get them, too,” she added, humbly.
And Julia knows exactly how hard parenting can be.
Together with her doctor husband Malcolm, she brought up three sons – Hamish, Alastair and Jerry.
But their lives were shattered when her troubled eldest child, Hamish, who had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, took his own life in 2003, aged 25.
The tragedy came shortly after Julia’s career really took off following the release of The Gruffalo in 1999.
Before becoming a children’s author, Julia used her rhyming skills to write songs for children’s television.
She only made the switch to books in 1993 when a publisher contacted her to ask if the words to one of her songs, A Squash and A Squeeze, could be made into a children’s picture book. She had written the song for a 1975 edition of the BBC’s Playboard show.
The book was also illustrated by Scheffler, who was behind The Gruffalo and The Snail and the Whale. Together they have become the most successful author and illustrator duo in picture book history.
Julia hopes her stories empower readers. She said: “It’s important for children to have stories and things to aspire to.
“In real life, things tend to get worse but in stories, there is a lot of hardship and things get better. Even if that’s not a total reflection of your life, it does give children hope. I do think that is important.”
Having one of her stories turned into a Christmas Day BBC One animation by Magic Light Pictures is a thrill for Julia.
But she admits she always nervously worries that her grandchildren, who have grown up with her books, might get bored. However, it has never happened yet.
She added: “I just always hope they don’t go out of the room, start fidgeting or playing with their Lego. But so far they have their attention captured by thefilms.”
Julia welcomed a new grandchild just a few weeks ago and now has four grandsons and four granddaughters, who help her understand what children want in their stories.
She said: “I think my grandchildren teach me, sort of subconsciously, what they will find gripping and what language is too complicated.
“I try to sometimes be a little bit simpler and straightforward, perhaps since having grandchildren.”
But she admits her son Alastair gifted her an idea for her 2018 book, The Cook and the King, after dreaming up the story for his own daughter.
She said: “Alastair made up this story about the cook and the king and I thought it was a really funny story so I turned it into a book and made it all rhyme and such. I did do it but it was basically Alistair’s story.”