“Iggety, ziggety, zaggety, ZOOM,” says the witch in Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Room on the Broom. But rather than shooting off on her broomstick as she does in the picture book, Donaldson and Scheffler have reimagined her stuck at home on Zoom, pleading for “somebody real in my room”.
In their second reimagining of some of their most famous characters for the Covid-19 era, author Donaldson and illustrator Scheffler show everyone from Room on the Broom’s witch to the mouse from The Gruffalo struggling with the trials and tribulations of the pandemic.
Invited for tea by the owl, the mouse – perhaps wisely, given the owl’s intentions – replies: “But I don’t want a fine, and your tree might be / Outside of my exercise boundary.” And updating their 1993 picture book A Squash and a Squeeze – the first title the pair worked on together – the animals are all masked as the old lady pleads: “Wise old man, won’t you tell me please / When will it be over, this viral disease?”
“It’s the question we are all asking ourselves,” said Scheffler. “I imagined the old lady being in self-isolation because of her age, and the wise old man is keeping his distance. I don’t know if he’s got an answer this time – I don’t think so.”
“I don’t even know if the witch has got a room,” he added, of his new Room on the Broom illustration. “But that’s something we’re all missing, aren’t we, contact with real people?”
When Donaldson and Scheffler first imagined their most famous characters into the world of the virus last April, they never thought they would be doing it again nine months later. “But I suddenly thought maybe we should, because we’re in the same situation and we got a good response last time,” Scheffler said. “They’re for families. Everyone is endlessly talking about what we need to do, but it gives it a little lighthearted touch. I think that’s something children and adults will enjoy.”
“I suppose it feels harder this time because we’ve all had a taste of semi-normality and we all were hoping it was going to get better and then we’re back to square one,” said Donaldson. “A lot of them are about isolating, people complaining – I think it’s quite nice to have characters expressing how you’re feeling … It cheered up my own lockdown when Axel suggested that we produce another series of Covid-related pictures and verses, and I hope the results will cheer other home-bound people a little bit, too.”
Donaldson, who has just launched a second series of weekly broadcasts, in which she and her husband Malcolm perform stories and songs from their Sussex home for children in lockdown, said that like her witch, she’s starting to tire of Zoom.
“It’s a godsend, but you do start to feel ‘here we go again,’” she said. “In that couplet [about the witch], it’s capturing the feeling of isolation … I’m definitely really sorry the government has had to take this step [of closing schools], I’m not saying it’s wrong but it so widens the gap between privileged and less privileged children.”
All the illustrations, along with those released in April, will be available to the public to download from the official Gruffalo Facebook page from 8am on 23 January.