Getting children reading: The Gruffalo Effect

Published on: 23 March 2024

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler has helped children experience the magic of brilliant storytelling for 25 years.

Here's how a treasured picture book with such cultural impact can inspire families to read together — and why this is at the heart of our work at BookTrust.

An illustration from the front cover of The Gruffalo - a monster peering around a tree in a forest

While using her local food bank in Islington, Maria* received a book parcel through BookTrust's Christmas appeal.

"I remember taking the book home with me," Maria says. "My daughter and I sat on the floor, looking through it together. Now, whenever she sees the book on the shelf, she always wants it!"

The book Maria and her daughter received from BookTrust was The Gruffalo. "I work in a nursery, and people there are always talking about The Gruffalo," says Maria. "I didn't know anything about it, probably because it's a story from the UK. Now, I know the story, and I can pass it on to my daughter.

"She won't grow up without knowing what The Gruffalo is, because she has the book at home."

What is the social value of knowing what The Gruffalo is? For Maria, it's being included. It's being in-the-know about a character from British culture that has been shaping childhoods for a quarter of a century. It's about the self-discovery her daughter gains from the story's empowering message for small children, which might compel her to latch onto another book in search of her next lightbulb moment. It's about making sure her child doesn't miss out on this, because it will benefit her later in life.

The Gruffalo and BookTrust's work to inspire families' reading journeys

A copy of The Gruffalo Carousel Book in a food bank parcel

There is great power in a perfectly realised children's book. It embeds itself into children's early memories, with illustrations that draw them into the story, characters they see themselves in, expertly scripted words that stay in their brain and aid their development, and a message that means something to them — and the grown-ups cuddled up with them. It can be the catalyst for a life-long love of reading.

This is why BookTrust puts care and expertise into selecting books of the highest quality and enjoyment to be gifted to families and used in our programmes to support families at a community level across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on their reading journeys.

When Julia Donaldson wrote The Gruffalo in 1999, paired perfectly with Axel Scheffler's illustrations, they created a masterpiece of children's literature. For a book to be translated into 81 languages worldwide and endure so highly in public opinion for 25 years — to the point where Donaldson has become the most borrowed author in UK libraries, where a book of hers is sold in the UK every 11 seconds, and The Gruffalo is the first book read by parents to 1 in 8 children in the UK, it becomes something even greater.

It becomes a phenomenon that embodies the pure magic of reading that BookTrust wants all families to experience.

"Most families living in the UK have heard of The Gruffalo, even if they don't see themselves as readers," says Emily Drabble, BookTrust's Head of Children's Books, Promotions and Prizes.

"I see it as an incredibly important gateway book. In BookTrust's work with families in early years settings, we see first-hand how The Gruffalo draws families in — many of whom are new to reading books — because they recognise it. It feels familiar, cosy, somehow relatable.

"It's so recognisable to so many people, that it transcends barriers. This is a book that has become a brand. This means it has the power to inspire families to read books, and to help children from all backgrounds to be readers."

Emily adds: "When children hear The Gruffalo being read out loud at nursery or at school, the rhythm and rhyme sound so enticing, and the illustrations are so funny and fabulous. It's the perfect introduction to reading out loud. It has become part of children's cultural life and rituals."

How it feels to have built the legacy of The Gruffalo

The front cover of the 25th anniversary edition of The Gruffalo, plus the covers of Gruffalo Growl, The Gruffalo: A First Sticker Book, Have You Seen The Gruffalo?, The Gruffalo: A Push, Pull and Slide Book, Axel Scheffler's How to Draw The Gruffalo and Friends, and The Gruffalo: A Noisy Storybook

How do Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler feel about the cultural impact of The Gruffalo, and the special role it continues to play in sparking children's enjoyment of reading?

"I illustrated Julia's story about 26 years ago on a small table in a small flat in a house in Streatham Hill, London, where I was a lodger at the time," says Axel Scheffler. "I remember struggling to get the pictures right. I had absolutely no idea then that it would all be worth it, and that the mouse and Gruffalo would go on to conquer the hearts of so many readers all over the world.

"There seems to be something in this book that appeals to children as well as parents, and it's very touching to think that we have created a book that is shared by so many families and that it means so much to them.

"The story of a small creature outwitting a big 'baddie' (though I always like to point out that the Gruffalo is not bad or evil, just hungry) seems to have timeless and universal significance. The Gruffalo and mouse have come a long way. I can't believe that I now meet adults who grew up with the book. Thinking of all the children listening to the story at bedtime every night makes me feel slightly dizzy!"

Julia Donaldson adds: "It makes me happy that so many parents tell me how much they enjoy reading The Gruffalo to their children, and how it has become part of family life. I'm often told with great pride how a quite young child can recite the story by heart, and how they enjoy going for Gruffalo hunts in local woods.

"As a parent and grandparent, I'm familiar with the pleasure of sharing stories and the way in which they can embed themselves in family rituals, so it's lovely to know this is happening all over the country — and in many other countries too.

"I like to think that some of the children enjoying The Gruffalo might grow up to become authors or illustrators themselves."

* Names have been changed

Topics: Features

Reading Together

Reading Together, Changing Children's Lives is based on decades of experience of working with millions of families and thousands of local partners, including health visitors, nurseries, schools, libraries and food banks.

Discover our four proposals