There have been many celebrated artistic collaborations over the years: Gilbert & Sullivan, Rogers & Hammerstein, Lennon & McCartney. In the world of picture books, one such dream team is wordsmith Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler, their most famous literary creation being The Gruffalo and the subsequent Gruffalo’s Child.
One sketch by Scheffler in this second book started Donaldson thinking. “The Gruffalo’s child carries a stick doll with her into the woods and it reminded me of how my children used to play with sticks, pretending they were different things, like violins or ice-creams,” recalls Donaldson. “When you think about it, a stick can be anything to anyone.” Is Stick Man a distant relative to the Gruffalo Child’s doll? “He’s definitely not the same Stick Man, because the Gruffalo’s Child is set in a fairytale world, whereas in this tale, there are modern children,” says Donaldson. “I’m not sure he could step across the divide between the two worlds.”
Told in the author’s characteristic rhyming couplets, the tale starts with Stick Man leaving behind his Stick Lady Love and their three Stick children in the family tree and setting off for a morning jog. Things start to go wrong when a dog decides Stick Man is just perfect for a game of fetch. The unfortunate protagonist is then subjected to a various succession of indignities, as he is thrown off a bridge as a Pooh-stick, woven into a swan’s nest and poked into a sandcastle as a mast for a flag.
This is a book of the season,” says Donaldson. “The cygnets grow up, children play on the beach, autumn leaves start to fall. All the while, Stick Man is getting further and further from home.
As time passes, Stick Man’s appearance changes too. The sprightly green leaves on his head and arm become dried out and brown. Eventually, he lies downhearted and exhausted in the snow, only to be picked up as kindling firewood and carried to a roaring fireplace. Could this be the tragic end for Stick Man?
According to Donaldson, the tale has a happy but emotional ending. “I once performed Stick Man with puppets at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even I was dewy-eyed!”
So next time you pick up a stick in the woods, be sure to examine it carefully, just in case it’s a Stick Man or one of his relatives trying to find their way home…