Friday, June 3, 2011

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

We started reading The Gruffalo when Ryan was still an infant. Ryan had other favourites at the time so we just read this on and off. When we were reading it few months ago, I noticed that he was hanging on to every word, his facial expressions were changing at each scene and he was making comments on the illustrations. Now it is one of his firm favourites.

This “David and Goliath” story, written by the great Julia Donaldson, is a poem about the courage and imagination of a mouse, wandering the “deep dark wood” in search of nuts. Predators approach him, one by one and he scares each one away with tall stories of the terrifying Gruffalo, topping each tale off by sharing that the Gruffalo’s favourite food is that particular predator. Suddenly, the figment of his imagination appears and wants to have him on a slice of bread! The quick-thinking mouse employs his wit and ingenuity to show the Gruffalo who’s the boss and the Gruffalo flees.

Donaldson has said that the story is based on a traditional Chinese folk tale of a fox that borrows the terror of a tiger. Donaldson was unable to find rhymes for “tiger” so came up with the “Gruffalo” to rhyme with the word “know”.

The illustrations are equally important to the telling of the tale and are done by the incomparable Axel Scheffler. Ryan loves them, as do I. The forest backdrop is drawn in such detail, it is simply magnificent. After we finish reading, Ryan loves to go through the book again and point out the little details on each page – the woodpecker and the fallen tree, the kingfisher and the dragonfly at the stream where the owl lives, the reeds and the stepping stones in the stream, the snake’s logpile house (the logs are from different trees), the green frogs in the stream, the acorns and the mushrooms lining the mouse’s path, the butterflies and bugs, the pink and blue bluebells, the different types of trees, etc. The power of the illustrations is particularly felt when the mouse is describing the fearsome features of the Gruffalo. Only one part of the Gruffalo is shown at a time, and this effectively builds up the suspense in the story. When it finally appears, the Gruffalo isn’t that scary, it has kind eyes and looks a little goofy (apparently, initial sketches of the Gruffalo were much more menacing) and this endears it to the reader.

While reading it aloud, I use a variety of voices and accents to give each animal a personality and I try to express, through pace and volume, the mood of each scene whether whimsical, scary, funny, suspenseful, victorious or peaceful. You can get an audio version of it (the audio version won the Best Children's Audio award in the Spoken Book Awards) but I couldn’t bear to miss out on the fun!

Published in 1999, this "modern classic" has sold more than 5 million copies, been translated into 40 languages and has been staged in repertory since 2001 – not just in the UK (including London’s West End) but across America (including off-Broadway), Chile, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. The Gruffalo has spawned a sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, and even has its own website where you can play games and be part of the Gruffalo gang.

The Gruffalo won the gold award (in the 0–5 years category) of the 1999 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. In 2000, it was UK's bestselling picture book and won the 2000 Nottingham/Experian Children's Book award plus the Blue Peter “Best Book To Read Aloud” award. In November 2009 the book was voted "best bedtime story" by listeners of BBC Radio 2. In a 2010 survey by UK charity Booktime, the book came first in a list of children's favorite books.

It has been adapted into a 30-minute animated film, which was broadcast in the UK on Christmas Day 2009 with an all-star cast including Robbie Coltrane in the title role and Helena Bonham Carter as the narrator. The film was nominated for a BAFTA in 2010 and for an Oscar (Academy Award) for Best Short Film (Animated) in January 2011.

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