Julia Donaldson: ‘Edward Lear taught me that there can be a lyrical beauty in nonsense’

The book I am currently reading
I’m enjoying Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, but I also have Richard Mabey’s wonderful Flora Britannica by my bedside and dip into it regularly to find out more about the history and folklore surrounding the flowers I’ve seen while out walking.

The book that changed my life
Lord of the Flies by William Golding was a coming-of-age book for me. Till I read it I had a child’s rosy view of life; I suppose I believed in happy endings. This story of a group of boys stranded on a desert island was a horribly convincing portrait of the darker side of human nature.

The book I wish I’d written
Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel. This and the other books about the same comic amphibian duo each contain several short stories – fables, really – about endearing human weaknesses such as greed, self-consciousness, laziness and addiction to routine. In my favourite story, “The List”, Toad makes a list of Things To Do and then refuses to do anything at all when it blows away. (He can’t chase after it because that wasn’t on the list.)

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets by Edward Lear, mainly because it contains the poem “The Jumblies”, which sank deeply into my imagination, teaching me that there can be a lyrical beauty in nonsense, madness and the unreasonable quest for adventure. In my own rhyming story The Snail and the Whale, the snail who longs to see the world is really a Jumbly in disguise.

The book I think is most underrated
The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell – or almost any of her psychological thrillers (as opposed to those about Inspector Wexford). Of course Rendell was hugely popular within the crime genre but I feel she was perhaps snobbishly regarded as a “popular” rather than a “literary” author (not that I approve of these classifications). To my mind she’s right up there with the likes of Ian McEwan in style and characterisation. This particular book is a compelling and convincing story about a child abduction.

The last book that made me laugh
Dishonesty Is the Second Best Policy by the comedian David Mitchell. A collection of witty articles about the irritations of modern life. This is what he has to say about going to the theatre: “I don’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as prancing around myself, and I would be amazed if my view isn’t (possibly secretly) shared by most performers.” (I plead guilty.)

The last book that made me cry
Plainsong by Kent Haruf (and the other two books in the same trilogy, Benediction and Eventide). I cried more because I was moved than saddened by Haruf’s poetic yet unpretentious descriptions of the intermingling lives of ordinary people in a small American country town.

The book I couldn’t finish
I’m sure Terry Pratchett won’t be turning in his grave if he ever discovers that I found the only Discworld book that I tried to read put-downable.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read
So many! Three quarters of Dickens, all of Hemingway, and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to name but a few.

The book I give as a gift
Period Piece by Gwen Raverat. This memoir captures the way a child can develop a passionate attachment to a place (in this case Down House, the home of her grandfather, Charles Darwin), and is full of funny descriptions of eccentric relatives, my favourite being Aunt Etty, who went round destroying the stinkhorn fungus (phallus impudicus) “to preserve the morals of the maids”.

My earliest reading memory
I remember loving a picture book about a lion looking for a friend and getting taunted by some Dali-esque elephant-like characters called, I think, Chittergongs, but I can’t remember the title, author or illustrator and have been unsuccessful in tracking it down. Please, please, please, can anyone help?

My comfort read
The many William books by Richmal Crompton. William was my childhood hero and I still have my battered collection of books about the eternally 11-year-old boy’s misadventures. I love the way William is always “snorting sardonically” and saying things like: “Huh! I like that!”

Julia Donaldson’s creative writing course, Writing Children’s Picture Books, is available now at bbcmaestro.com.

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