Your partnership with Julia Donaldson is one of the most celebrated in children’s literature. How did you get together? It was the publisher – Macmillan – who brought us together. Julia had written A Squash And A Squeeze and they were looking for an illustrator and asked me. It’s great working with Julia, she’s a brilliant writer. She puts together the words first and then I come along and do the pictures.
Which of your books are your favourites? I always find it easier to do the quirkier and more fantastical stories like The Smartest Giant In Town, Stick Man or The Highway Rat. I find it easier and more inspiring to draw a fantasy world rather than the real world – I find it hard to draw cars, for example.
What books did you enjoy as a child? I didn’t have many picture books when I was growing up, but I remember my parents reading fairytales to me. When I got a bit older, I got into comics. I liked a Danish comic about pancake-loving bear cub Petzi – in Denmark he is called Rasmus Klump. I then moved onto Disney, the Smurfs, Asterix and Peanuts. And when I was a teenager I had a poster of Snoopy on my wall – I’ve never told anyone this before!
Do you think reading these comics influenced your style? Perhaps at a subconscious level. I certainly admire their playful, humorous feel. And I remember I used to enjoy tracing pictures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
In September you have a new book with Julia Donaldson coming out. Can you give us a sneak preview? The Superworm is about a worm who has superpowers and helps other animals in trouble – a bit like Superman. He gets kidnapped by an evil lizard and a crow. The worm was one of the most challenging characters I’ve had to draw because he has no arms or legs – no nose even. So you really only have the eyes and the mouth to convey his feelings which was quite hard. I found it quite a struggle but the publisher is happy and hopefully children will like it too!
You and Julia have been teaming up for some live performances of your tales. What has that been like? It was never my intention to become an actor but it’s been fun. I’ve played everyone from the owl in The Gruffalo to the dog in Room On The Broom and the melting snowman in Stick Man. We’ve performed at many of the big festivals in the UK – Edinburgh, Bath and Cheltenham. And we’ve also done a tour in Germany – Julia is a good German speaker. She’s also keen to do some performances in France, in French.
Some of your original illustrations are available to buy through Children’s Book Illustration. Why do you think it’s nice to own some original artwork? I think it’s just very special to have the original drawings to look at. I was recently sent a picture of a little tiger by Judith Kerr (author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea) which is very nice to have. When you’re buying a children’s illustration, it’s more about loving the character and the drawing rather than investing in it as an artwork.
You have a daughter called Adélie, aged four. What kinds of books does she like? She really likes the Emily Brown series by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton. My wife is speaks French and I am German so Adélie speaks these languages as well as English and can enjoy books in all three languages. On her bookshelf there are books by everyone from Tony Ross and Posy Simmonds, to Marc Boutavant and Kitty Crowther, to Tomi Ungerer, Ole Könnecke and Rotraut Susanne Berner.
Why is it important to share bedtime stories with children? For me, sharing stories is like breathing or eating. It’s how we develop a relationship with the world. And bedtime is a great time for parents and children to spend time together.
Original works by Axel Sheffler are available from Children’s Book Illustration from around £375.