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From imagination to life and change management lessons: The wonderful world of Julia Donaldson

Who wouldn’t want to enjoy these stories?

  • A small snail travelling around the globe on the back of a giant whale and the two supporting each other

  • A little monkey who has lost his mother and a kind butterfly attempting to help him

  • A little mouse successfully scaring a giant bully

  • A quiet ladybird gathering intelligence on thieves and protecting a prize cow

  • Some ordinary animals using their smartness to scare the hell out of a dangerous dragon

  • A little baby who has been taken out on an exciting ride by a hairy mammoth through a moonlit landscape inhabited by a sabre-toothed tiger, a leaping hare, a laughing hyena, and even a big brown bear...

Yes, just like you, I am also fascinated by these stories. Even though aimed at children, these stories equally entertain people of all ages for a variety of reasons. The artist who has created these magical stories is none other than Julia Donaldson, British writer, lyricist, playwright, and Children’s Laureate (2011-13).

Julia Donaldson. Image source:

I must admit I envy my little daughter and little son who have discovered Julia Donaldson at a very young age as opposed to me who, if it wasn’t for the little ones, probably was far less likely to have ever come across this beautiful world of creativity, imagination, and life lessons. Even though being forced by them to include at least one Donaldson book every night on their reading list before their bedtime can sometimes initially feel like a pain, instead of blaming them, I rather appreciate them when I also embark on the same journey with them into a beautiful world: a world of imagination, sheer magic created by words, and full of surprises at every turn of every story.

There are so many reasons to refer to Donaldson’s books as a must for the intellectual development of kids. First and foremost, look at the selection of characters and settings in her books: a varied range of characters, animals (real and imaginary), far off geographical locations that some you might be familiar with and some you are probably not (ranging from a forest to a wild ocean). Secondly, the evolving relations between the characters in her books are so dynamic and fascinating: it is here that a very small snail can become a friend with a gigantic whale, or some small animals become friends with a kind witch, and the list goes on. Thirdly – and for me personally – the best part of her work is the lyrical quality of her language, the panache in the rhyming scheme that she utilises in whatever she writes. This is where I see the most value as a young father of two young children: reading Donaldson immensely benefit young children by enriching their vocabulary. Fourthly, and this is where I see the value for both children and adults, i.e. the life lessons her books teach: how to face challenges, how to think beyond the box, how to work as a team, how to believe in one’s own dreams and capabilities, how to be resilient, how to be kind to others, and how being kind to others is beneficial to you too.

It will be too long to cover everything here about the works of Donaldson, however, I want to mention two of her books which offer many lessons not to children, but also to me as a father / adult and also as a professional: The Snail and the Whale and The Gruffalo.

Image source: Amazon

The Snail and the Whale is the story of a snail that longs to see the world but is mocked by its peers. Undeterred the snail hitches a lift on a whale's tail. Together they embark on an amazing journey, past icebergs and volcanoes, sharks and penguins; and the snail feels very small in the vastness of the world. But when the whale is beached in a bay, their unusual mate ship comes in handy: it's the tiny snail who saves the day. In addition to being a sheer pleasure for children because of the nature of the story covering far off lands, lyrical language, the life lesson it teaches me – an adult, and the child in me – is that if one has a dream, they should value it and shouldn’t abandon it because of the mockery by their peers. Believe in your dream, work hard for it, and you’ll achieve it.

Image source: Amazon

The Gruffalo tells us the story of how a clever little mouse outwits her big scary enemy. The tasty little mouse needs to make her way through the deep dark woods where there are many predators who can endanger her safety. Inventing the gruffalo, a fearsome imaginary creature with terrible claws, terrible tusks and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws proves to be a brilliant trick, until it turns out that there is actually a real one. But hang on! In a mesmerising twist, the mouse cleverly uses the other predators to convince the creature that she (the mouse) is pretty scary, whose favourite food is gruffalo crumble. The outcome? One fleeing gruffalo; one contented mouse safe to walk in the woods.

Even though I mentioned two books earlier, the number is actually three: I also need to include The Gruffalo’s Child. Ignoring her father’s advice, the child gruffalo enters the forest and up to a certain point even endangers the ‘little’ mouse. However, the mouse has learnt a good skill and, using that skill, scares the hell out of the child gruffalo who runs back to safety to her father’s cave.

Image source: Amazon

This is where I link the experience / journey of the child to PROSCI’s ADKAR** theory:

A = Awareness of the fact that there are potential dangers in the forest and that might require the mouse to act somewhat differently. Also why the change is needed and the risks of not changing. In this act, the mouse has displayed a wonderful cognitive ability.

D = Desire of the mouse to change its behavioural patterns and thinking. A great example of WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), i.e. whether the change represents an opportunity or a threat, and how it relates to the personal situation of the mouse.

K = Knowledge. This is probably a bit challenging to define here. No one taught the mouse the ‘knowledge'of how to manage the dangerous situation, but she used her intelligence / existing knowledge and analytical ability to come up with a solution that helps her manage the situation.

A = Ability is actually the act of doing so that the desired objective of the change is achieved. The mouse displays the ability to implement the change by consistently using the same description of the fearsome imaginary creature. There is a very brilliant side of the mouse: it is a matter of survival, a selection between life and death, and a slight mistake can prove fatal.

R = Reinforcement includes any activities / actions that strengthen and reinforce the change. In this case, initially using the imaginary fearsome creature to command respect from or generate fear within the other animals, and later using the respect / fear in a reverse order to scare the gruffalo show how the mouse has successfully reinforced the right behaviour.

Now back to the literary world. No wonder that Julia Donaldson enjoys such a huge popularity and respect; in fact, one reviewer has referred to her as ‘outrageously talented’. This is indeed not just the story of my household, this is rather a global phenomenon that every night at bedtime, millions of children in different corners of the world with pyjamas on and teeth brushed (probably reluctantly) curl up to read or listen to a Donaldson story. Kes Gray, creator of the hit Oi Frog! Series refers to her as the unassailable queen of picture books. The bestselling children’s author, David Walliams, called Donaldson a complete and utter genius.

Another quality of her books is the brilliant illustration done by some absolutely talented artists, the most notable of them all – arguably – is Axel Scheffler. Scheffler has illustrated 15 books for Donaldson over the course of 20 years of collaboration, including The Snail and the Whale and The Gruffalo.

Julia Donaldson’s books are also noteworthy as commercial success. Her books have sold – and for all the right reasons – millions of copies, have been made into animations. According to a report by the Guardian, in the UK, a Julia Donaldson book is sold about every 11 seconds, though even that fails to adequately capture the scale of her success. According to the trade database Nielsen Bookscan, between 2010 and 2019, more than 27 million Julia Donaldson books were sold in the UK, making her the bestselling author of the decade in any age group or genre. In comparison, the second bestselling author of the decade, David Walliams sold 18.1m books. The bestselling author of books for adults, the novelist James Patterson, sold 14.1m. The Sunday Times Rich List has estimated Donaldson’s personal wealth at more than £30m. If you look at the value chain of writing a book and selling it at the marketplace, then also in making and distributing movies, just imagine how many jobs it created, how many businesses and employees benefit, how much money is paid in taxes to the government(s), and most importantly, the value it creates in terms of educating and entertaining people of all ages, especially children. Who are the idiots that say Arts don’t generate money or Arts don’t contribute to the economy?

** In defining ADKAR terms, I have depended on ADKAR: a model for change in business, government and our community by Jeffrey M. Hiatt.


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