SA's Ugly Five are the stars of famous author's new children's book

Children's author Julia Donaldson of 'Gruffalo' fame has written a new book inspired by a South African safari

03 October 2017 - 12:17 By Kate Sidley
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler have produced a heartwarming book.
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler have produced a heartwarming book.
Image: Supplied

"Ah, admire the graceful and magnificent lappet-faced vulture." Said no game ranger. Ever.

No, it's the cheetahs and the lions, the zebras and the elephants that get the oohs and aahs from tourists.

Superstar children's author Julia Donaldson - she of Gruffalo fame - is giving the less-than-perfect wild animals the admiration they deserve in her new book, The Ugly Five.

The inspiration for the book came when Donaldson and her husband Malcolm ended a whirlwind book tour in South Africa and took a bush holiday - her first ever safari. While they were on a game drive, her husband admired a wildebeest, only to be told by the ranger it was considered one of the Ugly Five.

"I knew about the Big Five, of course," says Donaldson. "But when I heard about the Ugly Five, that instantly appealed to me for a rhyming picture book. The whole story came to mind."

It wasn't as easy as she anticipated. "There was quite a lot of mulling and delaying, and I nearly gave up. It's one thing having the idea, but another making it work, and to do it in rhyme. One challenge was trying to describe each animal entertainingly, and to differentiate them. "

She was helped by her long-time collaborator and illustrator, Axel Scheffler. He depicts the ugly beasties - wildebeest, warthog, spotted hyena, lappet-faced vulture and marabou stork - in a charming and expressive way.

He says: "There was a suggestion to make them more caricatured, but I made them more natural and kept their animal dignity in the drawings. I think they're quite beautiful."

"They look quite happy," says Donaldson. "They are not cowed by their ugliness; they revel in being ugly."

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder - in this case, the Ugly Five's appreciative offspring, who think their moms and dads are perfect just as they are.

Donaldson says: "I've always shied away from stories about how wonderful parents are. Those books are really written for the parents, not the children. In fact, in most self-respecting children's books, the author does away with parents immediately. The children are very often orphans."

I've always shied away from stories about how wonderful parents are. Those books are really written for the parents, not the children
Julia Donaldson, author

The one-time Children's Laureate is also determinedly opposed to lecturing or presenting obvious morals in her stories. "This book is more of a celebration of the animals, in a way that's funny and touching, but with a little twist."

It is heartwarming, deceptively simple, and just asking to be read out loud (not for nothing is she Britain's top-selling author). And it's dedicated to South African ranger Lucky and tracker Charlie, who first introduced her to the Ugly Five.

• 'The Ugly Five' by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler is published by Alison Green Books.

• This article was originally published in The Times.

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