Julia Donaldson reveals tussle over opening couplet of Superworm

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  • Julia Donaldson
    British children's writer
  • Axel Scheffler
    British German illustrator

Author backed down over publisher’s concerns about potentially embarrassing misinterpretations


Literature is open to many interpretations, but as the former children’s laureate Julia Donaldson discovered, some are more embarrassing than others.

The writer has revealed that an original line for her and illustrator Axel Scheffler’s children’s classic Superworm was changed after an awkward conversation with Donaldson’s longtime publisher, Alison Green, who objected to her opening couplet: “Superworm is long and pink, Superworm can grow and shrink.”

The line was eventually replaced by “Superworm is super-long, Superworm is super-strong.” which proved less vulnerable to misinterpretation, Donaldson said in an interview for the Radio Times Christmas issue.

Donaldson and Scheffler’s books, including Zog, Stick Man and The Gruffalo are loved by generations of children. She was inspired to write Superworm, published in 2012, by her grandson’s obsession with Batman and Scheffler’s previous illustrations of bugs.

“In some ways he was my most difficult character to draw,” Scheffler said. “It was challenging to give him any kind of expression. But in other ways he was the easiest, because I didn’t have to worry about arms, legs, ears … There aren’t that many possibilities with a worm.”

Related: Children’s laureates campaign for £100m a year to fix primary school libraries

Olivia Colman narrates the story of Superworm, a valiant earthworm, in the BBC’s new TV adaptation, which airs over Christmas and also stars Matt Smith as Superworm, Patricia Allison and Rob Brydon.

Nine of the duo’s picture books have been animated for the BBC. Donaldson said preserving the text in any adaptation was sacrosanct to her, while expressing her delight at the worm being voiced by Netflix’s royal family in The Crown.

“In the first versions [of the animation], Superworm was too big for his boots, so I suggested they tone that down,” she said. “I was also in two minds about Butterfly becoming a major character, but I’ve come around to it. I’m always a bit wary about them changing too much, but it’s very gratifying … I suddenly realised that Superworm was Prince Philip in The Crown.”

“And the Queen is narrating,” Sheffler added.

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