SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat - children's literature abounds with iconic duos. Then there's Julia and Axel.
AXEL SCHEFFLER: Ladies first.
JULIA DONALDSON: Right. I'm Julia Donaldson. My main thing is writing picture books, and probably the most famous ones are the ones which Axel has illustrated.
SCHEFFLER: And my name is Axel Scheffler. Yeah, I've done many, many books with Julia. And we have collaborated now for 30 years.
SIMON: Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are the author/illustrator pair behind such classics as "Room On The Broom," "Tabby McTat," "Zog" and, of course, "The Gruffalo."
DONALDSON: Well, we could count (laughter).
SCHEFFLER: We could count, but it would...
SCHEFFLER: ...Maybe take a while, yeah.
DONALDSON: We've got - yeah, Axel's busy counting now.
SCHEFFLER: We've got 28 books together, I think, maybe. Let's say that.
SIMON: One of their latest children's books is "The Baddies." It's about a witch, a troll and a ghost who compete to steal a little girl's blue hanky.
SCHEFFLER: I want to see how you do the voices, Julia.
DONALDSON: Yes, OK. Right.
SCHEFFLER: I've never heard you read it.
DONALDSON: (Reading) There once lived a troll and a ghost and a witch. They were horrible baddies, all three. They never said sorry or thank you or please. And their hearts were as hard as could be. And the worst thing about the three baddies, the troll and the witch and the ghost, was the fact that all three of them liked being bad, and what's more, they all liked to boast. The troll said, (imitating the troll) I'm stronger than you two. I can easily win every fight.
(Reading) The ghost said, (imitating the ghost) I'm much the most scary. I make things go bump in the night.
(Reading) The witch said, (imitating the witch) my magic turns men into mice and rubies and pearls into coal. So you better beware, or you'll end up as frogs or maybe as toads in the hole (imitating witch laugh).
SIMON: How will this little girl thwart these three baddies? For our series Picture This, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler sat down to speak about "The Baddies" and their decadeslong collaboration.
SCHEFFLER: What I find interesting is that spark really happens on paper because, contrary to what many people think, we don't sit together and make up a story. We work completely separately, and the spark happens when the pictures come together with the text in the book. And I think that's an interesting phenomenon because I think we're very different people. And it's amazing that it works so well.
DONALDSON: Every time I write a new story, which I hope will be for Axel, I kind of want to have it a bit different from the one that went before. So our previous book had been "The Smeds And The Smoos," which is about aliens, and it's kind of "Romeo And Juliet" story but with a happy ending. But there's no real villain, so I sort of thought it was time to have a baddie. So I kind of beaver away all by myself with my idea. And then when I've got a text that I'm reasonably happy with, I then will send it to my editor. She would then send it to Axel.
SCHEFFLER: My style is just my style, so slightly humorous, I hope. It's very colorful, and it's not very naturalistic. And yeah, as I said, it's supposed to be comical. They're really ridiculous, the three baddies, when you think about it.
DONALDSON: Because the text - I mean, they are supposed to be, yeah, funny monsters.
SCHEFFLER: Yes, yes. For me, that is intentional. They have to be funny. But I think children like to be scared a little bit but not too much. You don't want to traumatize children, and the books always have a happy end.
DONALDSON: So I'm kind of trying to think - what creature, you know, or character have Axel and I not done together? It's getting harder and harder, actually. I do think sometimes about gargoyles or a sphinx or something, but yeah, it does get a bit hard.
SCHEFFLER: I find it easier to illustrate a story like that. I don't think I'm very good at observing the everyday modern life. The original artwork is done with liquid watercolors. I use a dip pen with a metal nib to do the black outlines first on watercolor paper. So I would trace the sketch on a lightbox onto watercolor paper. I would do the black outlines first, and then it's a matter of really simple coloring in. So I use liquid watercolors as a first layer, and then on top of that, I use color crayons or color pencils. And then I use a bit of white gouache for highlights and the ghost or something like that, so all done by hand and all very traditional.
DONALDSON: You always add a lot of details...
DONALDSON: ...You know, things that aren't in the text. So there's lots of funny little extra things. Like, I don't mention a cat in the story, but there's a witch's cat with fangs and - that you've drawn. And there's a lovely bit where the cat's holding out the spell book for the witch to look at.
SCHEFFLER: I try to fit in details that are not in the text. I feel it's part of my job.
DONALDSON: I'm looking now at one of my favorite pictures where the ghost is trying to scare the little girl, but she's just saying, oh, why don't you have a nice hot bath or read a book or have a cup of tea? And I love the way Axel's done a bath. It's a kind of - an old-fashioned lead or tin bath with a wonderful kind of raised - what would you call it, Axel, with the ogre on the front of the bath?
SCHEFFLER: I don't know. I think it's a lion.
DONALDSON: Yeah, I suppose it is a lion. And also, there's always - somewhere in our books, there's always a picture of the Gruffalo. So just delightful - every single page has got some humorous details in it.
SCHEFFLER: What I like about Julia's text is the subtlety of her messaging. It's about kindness. It's about solidarity, helping other creatures who are in trouble. And I think for both of us, entertaining children and amusing them is very important.
DONALDSON: There is a message, I suppose, that however small you are - like the girl who has this pretty handkerchief, she in a sense outwits the baddies in that you don't have to be bad to get what you want. I mean, that is an underlying message of the book. Obviously, every story has to have some sort of message, otherwise it would be a bit pointless. But I'm certainly not thinking, oh, dear, I'm so worried that children are being mean to each other; I must write a book to show that kindness can be good. No, not at all. I just hope they enjoy the story and have a good laugh.
SCHEFFLER: I don't know whether I'm right, but I feel our books are kind of timeless. And that might be some secret of the success. I think my style is very personal, and it's not fashionable or anything. So there's no trend. It's sort of just what I do, and it seems to speak to people.
DONALDSON: Yeah. And I think the same with my writing. If you've hit on something that works, why change it?
SCHEFFLER: There are things that I find easier after 30, 25 years of doing them, and I can work a little bit faster. But I don't think it has changed. It's been very successful, so nobody would change it.
DONALDSON: No need to change it.
SIMON: Illustrator Axel Scheffler, author Julia Donaldson talking about their 30-year-long collaboration and one of their latest children's books, "The Baddies." Our series Picture This is produced by Samantha Balaban and edited by Melissa Gray.
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