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This week: Julia and Axel: Thirty Years of Favourite Stories, Philippa Gregory's theatrical debut, a family sculpture walk, escape to the sunny seaside whatever the weather
WOULD The Gruffalo still have sold more than 13m copies if the creature with terrible teeth in his terrible jaws had instead been named ‘the Snarglegow’? Would Zog, the accident-prone dragon, have captured children’s imaginations as deeply if he had been green instead of orangey-red?
These are the sorts of deep questions you find yourself pondering while visiting The Lowry’s engaging new exhibition Julia and Axel: Thirty Years of Favourite Stories. It’s an incredibly rich show, put together by a team who are visibly excited to be revealing it to their first visitors, particularly those who are children.
Every Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler collaboration is represented in detail. Each one has a wall or structure dedicated to it, with four of Scheffler’s original illustrations displayed as well as Donaldson’s notebooks and information panels packed with facts about the stories and their creatures. Pages of the books have been enlarged to an enormous size so you feeling like you’ve stepped inside them. And best of all, it’s completely free to visit.
‘The first audiences to come back into the Lowry after lockdown were families,’ says Michael Simpson, The Lowry’s Director of Visual Art. ‘We wanted to do a free exhibition where families could come for as long as they liked.’
That exhibition - which ran last year - was Picture This, featuring illustrations from favourite children’s stories. With so many beautiful picture books out there, Picture This 2 seemed a natural successor for 2023’s programme. But then came a different idea.
This year is the 30th anniversary of Donaldson’s and Scheffler’s partnership. A ‘unique alchemy’ that has resulted in more than 20 books being enjoyed by millions of kids and grown-ups.
‘It’s asking a lot,’ says Michael. ‘When they’re writing or doing illustrations they are comfortable. Their instincts will tell them what will work. An exhibition is a different thing.’
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Yet both were incredibly generous in revealing their working processes, lending piles of sketches and notebooks that show the stories coming together. Even more fascinating than the ideas that made it into the books we know and love are those that did not. The animals in the Gruffalo were originally drawn wearing clothes, before Donaldson asked Scheffler to change them. Superworm initially wore a cape. George the Smartest Giant in Town was named Ethelred in an early version of the manuscript.
Interesting snippets of information are dotted all around the exhibition, including that almost all of their books feature a hidden Gruffalo, and that Donaldson kept sneaking away from her family one Christmas to finish writing The Snail and the Whale.
As fans of these books are as young as two - or even younger - the curatorial team created interactives that all ages could use and enjoy. They include a game where you turn a handle to reveal a scene, such as a picnic, and have to name five things you would see in it before a giant egg timer runs out of sand.
Michael’s own favourites are Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book (‘because it goes to the heart of people who love reading’) and Tiddler (‘an absolute classic Julia and Axel story because it has a little element of peril’).
‘Julia’s published lots of books with other illustrators but the ones with Axel are those people seem to remember the most,’ he says.
‘It’s an absolutely unique alchemy the two of them have together. Julia has an ear for a rhyme unlike anyone else really. Parents really like her because the books are so enjoyable to read. Axel’s drawings are just so full of character and freshness. You can picture yourself in their world.
‘We want our young visitors to feel they can be the Julias and Axels of the future.’
Julia and Axel: 30 Years of Favourite Stories is at The Lowry, Salford, until January 1, 2024. More details here.
REVIEW: ‘A fantastic exhibition’ - by Amelie, aged 9
It can really inspire children to read, write and draw. There are so many fun and interesting facts about the books Julia and Axel created. Children can also take part in colouring in a fish to stick on the wall of the Tiddler room, getting dressed in an animal costume, taking a picture with some of the animals on a wall, reading their books in a reading corner, and lots more. It made me even more inspired to write my own book. It is a fantastic exhibition. You should definitely try to go.
We’re Also Buzzing About…
Richard, My Richard: Best-selling historical author Philippa Gregory will make her playwriting debut at Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, Knowsley, next March. It imagines the king rising from his grave beneath Leicester City Carpark to discover his tarnished reputation. I have just finished reading Josephine Tey’s brilliant The Daughter of Time - an unconventional detective novel investigating the ‘truth’ behind Richard III’s story - so am very much in the mood for this. Tickets start at £12 (with an allocation of Pay What You Decide tickets starting at £3). Book here.
World Afro Day Family Walk: Poet-in-residence Keisha Thompson will lead a stroll through Yorkshire Sculpture Park to discover sculptures that have inspired her. As well as sharing poetic reflections, she will guide participants in origami paper folding, imagining sculptures in a new light. There are two slots for this 90-minute walk on Saturday, September 16 - at 10.30am and 1.30pm. Tickets are pricew £0-10. Book here.
Summer 2023: Not the entire season (especially as it feels more like winter this week) but the exhibition at Gallery Forty-Nine in Bridlington, East Riding. You can vicariously experience the sunny days we should be enjoying through Estella Brown’s prints of strolls along the pier and seaside fish and chips. There are also original paintings by Giuliana Lazzerini and Martin Pearson, gold leaf fine art by Robert Pereira Hind, and upcycled silver jewellery by Carol Vickers. More details here.
That’s it for this week. If you’d like to get in touch, I would love to hear from you. You can find me on Twitter, in the comments or on email at email@example.com.
Have a great week,