Donaldson grew up in a large family in Hampstead, London, where she often created performances and stories in the company of her sister, Mary. She studied Drama and French at Bristol University and went on to pursue a career in teaching and publishing, while continuing to develop her song writing when busking with her husband Malcolm. With time, these street performances led to further work as a songwriter for children’s television. About this time in her career, Donaldson has said that the specific requests of television soon became difficult to consolidate with the direction her own artistic inclinations were taking. However, one of the songs she wrote for the BBC, ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ caught the interest of Kate Wilson, editor at Macmillan. In 1993 the song was turned into Donaldson’s first published book. A Squash and a Squeeze also became the first collaboration between Donaldson and German illustrator Axel Scheffler.
Scheffler and Donaldson have continued to work together on twenty five of Donaldson’s books, including the Gruffalo series, Room on the Broom and Monkey Puzzle (Macmillan). The Gruffalo was voted the best bedtime story of all time by BBC Radio listeners in 2009, and its sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child was named the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year in 2005. Donaldson has also worked with several other illustrators, most recently with Sara Ogilvie on 2020’s The Hospital Dog (Macmillan). In 2011, Donaldson was appointed as Children’s Laureate. In the same years she was appointed an MBE for services to literature, promoted to a CBE in 2019. Her work has remained consistently popular. Over the period 2018/19, she was the third most borrowed author from UK public libraries, and the second most borrowed author for children.
Throughout her career, Donaldson has collaborated with a number of other illustrators, including Lydia Monks, Nick Sharratt and David Roberts. Her publication encompasses rhymed picture books as well as stories for young readers, such as the stories about Princess Mirror-Bell, and the novel Running on the Cracks (Egmont, 2009) which was awarded with the Nasen Inclusive Children’s Book Award for books that present a positive image of people with special needs. The book was also made into a play performed at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in early 2013.
In 2011, Donaldson was presented with a MBE (later raised to a CBE) and also became the first Scottish-based poet to be chosen as UK Children’s Laureate. During her laureateship, she spoke out in favour of libraries, firmly criticising the cuts in public library funding, whilst encouraging greater attention to children’s books in the literary world. In an interview with the Telegraph towards the end of her laureateship, she commented on the discrepancy between sales of children’s books – ‘nearly one in four of all book sales’ – and the attention given to them in the media: ‘far less than a 40th of review space in printed papers (…)’. In 2012 she set out on a six-week tour of libraries around Scotland, England and Wales, followed by a week in Northern Ireland in 2013, celebrating libraries as learning resources and community hubs. Donaldson brought some of her own dramatisations to these sessions, in which local school groups took part. As a laureate she also created two series of plays for reading groups and school children: Plays to Read and Plays to Act.
Julia and her family lived in Glasgow for many years, and she and her husband are now based in England but still spend time in Scotland.