The books of Julia Donaldson are like a calling card for parents of children of a certain age. Only the other morning, in the office, I was discussing the truly monstrous implications of a corporate ‘away day’ with some friends from another magazine when someone mentioned – only half in jest – that there would be a roll call before the coach left for London.
“Sorry, I was late, I was swimming with a mermaid,” I said.
“Sorry, I was late I was swimming with a ray,” one of my friends responded.
For those that don’t know it, these lines are from Tiddler, the delightful tale of a small fish who makes up stories about why he’s late for school every day. Arguably, it’s a bit out of date these days – with the European ban on discards that will come into force later this year, he wouldn’t be thrown back to sea towards the end of the story but landed and sold to Waitrose, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Even people who don’t have kids have heard of The Gruffalo, the equally delightful yarn about a small mouse who outwits the eponymous title character, as well as Fox, Owl and Snake. We’ve read this, as well as The Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale, Monkey Puzzle and Zog to our two small children – Sam, aged five, and Mungo, aged two and a half – almost since they were born.
As with most children’s books, the illustrations are as important as the story, and one thing I’ve always loved about Axel Scheffler’s work is the way he depicts native creatures, wildflowers and even fungi in the books. Going through The Gruffalo, for example, you find red – not grey – squirrels, kingfishers, foxgloves, fly agaric toadstools and frogs, as well as the fox (which is clearly a European red fox Vulpes vulpes) and a slightly more generic owl and snake – the owl is probably closest to a tawny, while the snake is really neither adder nor grass snake, but I’ll let that pass.
Little brown mouse is almost certainly a wood mouse. There are some birch trees and a blue butterfly, too. In The Gruffalo’s Child, there’s a large black bird with a mean-looking beak which has to be a raven, a deer (has to be roe, because of its small antlers), a wild boar (native, though technically extinct in this country) more birch trees and even some bats, which have to be either greater or lesser horseshoes, because they’re hanging upside down from the cave ceiling.
The point is, that because I’m a bit of a wildlife nut, I’ve been making sure that my children know these various species, and they can happily point to the kingfisher, the frog and the so on. In Room on the Broom, there’s even an aquatic beast of no discernible species – possibly a beaver, though in truth it looks more like a South American coypu – that we refer to as the ‘unidentified swimming mammal’. Mungo has known what I’m talking about from the age of two.
But the fact is, our children are far more interested in trains, planes and automobiles. Perhaps, it’s only natural, but it still pains my heart when we’re outside during a warm summer’s evening, and I point out to Mungo the screaming swifts weaving crazy patterns in the sky, and he gazes up in awe at the spectacle before him and he mouths in hushed, reverent tones one of the few words (he’s not been quick to talk, God bless him) he can actually say: “Plane!” Sam, who is five, knows what a contrail is, for heaven’s sake.
With this in mind, my girlfriend Louise and I have started a project. An odyssey of sorts. A quest to see if we can introduce all the wildlife from The Gruffalo (and The Gruffalo’s Child and the other books eventually) to our children, for them to see these creatures in the flesh. We don’t quite want to drag them kicking and screaming away from their Octopods, Brio train sets and Tree Fu Tom DVDs, but we do want to challenge them to step out of their comfort zones now and again (with plenty of bribery in the shape of chocolate-covered anythings along the way).
The idea is that we’ll learn a bit about how to get our children to do what we like doing, and we’ll also show you some of the tricks we’ve devised to get kids closer to nature.
If it works, that is.