She published her first book 30 years ago in her 40s and went on to sell 13 million copies of The Gruffalo alone but Steyning’s Julia Donaldson insists she has plenty more tales to write including her latest, which was inspired while strolling the Sussex countryside.

As the creator of The Gruffalo, Stick Man and Zog, children’s author Julia Donaldson is beloved by millions of families across the globe. But while it was The Gruffalo, published in 1999, that shot her to fame, it was Julia’s first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, published six years earlier, that began her extraordinary creative partnership with illustrator Axel Scheffler. Together, the duo has sold more than 75 million books worldwide, and her funny, insightful, lyrical rhyming verses have been translated into over 100 languages.

This year marks 30 years since that first collaboration – about an elderly lady who, with the help of an old man and a menagerie of animals, realises her house isn’t as small as she feared - was published in March 1993. The picture book has since sold 2.2 million copies globally and, to mark the anniversary, there’s a special edition with a foil cover which contains extra material including a letter from Julia and some early sketches from Axel, demonstrating how the classic characters came to be.

Julia’s foray into publishing made her a household favourite but she was busy writing songs for presenters and puppets on BBC Children’s TV programmes, including Thinkabout Science and Playdays, when she picked up the phone from a publisher interested in turning one of her songs into a children’s book.

Great British Life: The author bought the Steyning post office to stop its closure. Portrait: Steve UllathorneThe author bought the Steyning post office to stop its closure. Portrait: Steve Ullathorne

‘My career was being a songwriter, so I was quite surprised when I got the call,’ Julia, who lives in Steyning, West Sussex, says. ‘They’d heard the song ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ on BBC years earlier but had remembered it when they were looking for new material. They already had a German artist in mind and that’s how I was introduced to Axel.’

Last year the pair published their 25th book together, The Baddies, about three wicked creatures who delight in scaring people, and later this year, as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations, they will publish The Amazing World of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, in which they give a behind-the-scenes insight into their partnership.

‘We get asked what the secret is to our success all the time and I suppose it’s just a winning combination of both of us being good at what we do,’ says Julia. ‘When you read a picture book, you don’t tend to think “this could have been illustrated differently”, you just accept it. The words and pictures are part and parcel.

‘I think Axel is brilliant because he’s just so witty and he adds all these extra funny little details,’ says the 73-year-old, who was awarded a CBE in 2019 by Prince William who’s admitted he’s a fan. ‘Axel is also very faithful to the text, which is modest in a way. Some illustrators really want to impose their ideas and style - obviously, he has a distinctive style - but he really looks at what the book needs. That’s why I love working with him so much.’

Their partnership hasn’t stopped Julia from working with other illustrators including Sara Ogilvie (The Hospital Dog), Lydia Monks (What the Ladybird Heard) and, for her latest release, The Bowerbird, with award-winning Scottish illustrator Catherine Rayner, who she met while living in Edinburgh.

Great British Life: Her first book was published 30 years agoHer first book was published 30 years ago

‘We have a flat there, so I got to know her, and we became friends but it’s more that I liked her art. I’ve always admired her,’ explains Julia, who says she was after a more realistic style of illustration for the book, which tells the story of Bert a small Bowerbird with a big heart. ‘They’re beautiful pictures,’ Julia adds. ‘Catherine says it’s quite hard to do birds because their beaks make it hard to convey expressions but she’s done such a wonderful job.

‘Bowerbirds are mainly found in Australia and New Guinea and the males make a twiggy archway - a bower - to lure females in, and they find all these objects, like berries and flowers, but also buttons or even a mobile phone if they were to come across one, to place outside the bower to impress her. I’m quite pleased with the storyline and the pictures are just divine. Out of all my books that I’ve written recently, it’s my favourite.’

Julia loves all manner of wildlife and insists that nature - and the Sussex countryside - is her true muse. ‘I’m a member of the Sussex Wildlife Trust and go on lots of events with them,’ she explains. One particular SWT expedition inspired last year’s hit The Woolly Bear Caterpillar, illustrated by Yuval Zommer. ‘We went to look at these moths and that set me thinking, “I wonder if there are dull moths that were beautiful caterpillars or the other way around?” That inspired the Cinderella-style story about a caterpillar. The book comes with a non-fiction booklet about caterpillars and moths written by SWT nature specialist Michael Blencowe.”

Great British Life: The Sussex countryside inspires Julia's characters and ideasThe Sussex countryside inspires Julia's characters and ideas

Strolls in the West Sussex countryside with her husband of 50 years, Malcolm, a retired paediatrician, are a huge source of inspiration for character and plot development. ‘I do find going for walks is really helpful,’ she says. ‘Malcolm and I do lots of walking on the Downs and all over Sussex so we tend to talk about plot lines and ideas. Sussex is so varied. I love going to Cissbury Ring, which isn’t far from where we live. It’s quite high up but not too arduous and you get a lovely view of the sea and the Downs and it’s got that ancient feeling.’

Last year she and Malcolm, who bought the local post office a couple of years ago to save it from closure, walked half of the Sussex Border Path – a trip which has part- inspired a new book The Oak Tree which is set for release in the autumn. ‘We cut up the border path between East and West Sussex and walked all around the perimeter of Kent and ended up in Rye,’ she recalls. ‘It took us about 10 days and we found little places to stay along the way and friends would bring our luggage out each day.

‘The story I’ve written is about a very old oak tree and all it has seen – the children playing games on and around it, the animals that rely on it. We saw so many ancient oaks on that walk – the trees in Sussex are wonderful.’

Julia’s success is phenomenal. In the UK, a Julia Donaldson book is sold every 11 seconds – a staggering 27 million over the last decade, making her the bestselling author in any age group or genre, according to the trade database Nielsen Bookscan.

They’ve also been a platform for her to indulge her love of acting and performing. This year she and Malcom will return to the stage with a full cast for a handful of performances of the 2022 sell-out Edinburgh Fringe show, The Gruffalo, The Giant and The Mermaid, including a stop at The Capitol in Horsham this month.

‘Being a writer, it can be quite a solitary existence so doing the performances based on the books is a lovely contrast,’ she says. The show also incorporates British Sign Language which was important to Julia because she wears hearing aids- in her 30s she was diagnosed with ‘cookie-bite’ hearing loss, which leaves a bite-shaped hole in the mid-range of the audible spectrum - and is a passionate advocate for inclusion in children’s books.

‘I talk and sign which is a new challenge…a mouse took a stroll in the deep dark wood,’ she says demonstrating the signs for the words as she speaks. ‘After every show at the Fringe, a parent came up to me and said that either they or their child was deaf or wore hearing aids and I know it means a lot to them.’

What do her nine grandchildren, who are aged between two and 12, think of her books? ‘The older ones understand who I am and the younger ones are beginning to, although one said recently that when he went into school and told them who his Granny was, they didn’t believe him.’

Great British Life: Julia loves performing her books on stage. Photo: STEVE ULLATHORNEJulia loves performing her books on stage. Photo: STEVE ULLATHORNE

With over 200 books under her belt, I wonder how many more rhyming stories there are to come from Julia. ‘Oh plenty,’ she says. ‘When I was song writing, I used to write to order so there’s a bit of me always thinking, “well Axel needs a new story” but I do it in my own time. ‘I’m editing too, I’ve been compiling some poetry anthologies – Rock-A-Bye Rumpus came out last year and that comes with an audio book of my grandchildren singing and dancing around.

‘The nice thing is I’m not being pressurised too much, which allows me to pick and choose quite a bit. Children’s book publishing really is such a nice world to be in and I hope to be in it for many more years to come.’

The Bowerbird by Julia Donaldson and Catherine Rayner is published by Macmillan Children’s Books in hardback, RRP £12.99.