Gruffalo artist Axel Sheffler: ‘This was something I could do to help’

Brian Burns / April 25,2020

“I don’t feel like I’m very good at drawing real people in the real world” says a wistful Axel Sheffler.

The illustrator is famous for his weird and wonderful pictures of animals in books like The Gruffalo, but now the coronavirus pandemic has brought him back into the real world with a bump.

The 62-year-old has just helped to produce what must have been one of the fastest books in history. Coronavirus: A Book for Children was written, illustrated and then published for free online in the space of week by Nosy Crow.

“My publisher had been speaking to a head teacher in East London who told her that many families were really worried and felt a bit helpless,” Sheffler says. “So the idea was to give children aged five to nine some information – as factual as possible – and in a simple language.”

Facts are important but the book is also frank about the uncertainty the world faces. There’s a chapter on vaccines which explains that the disease is new and currently has no cure. “Honesty is crucial for children of any age, you have to have their trust,” says Sheffler.

The illustrator’s own life hasn’t changed much in the last few weeks as he’s always worked from home while drawing. But he admits to feeling anxious about what’s happening and says it must be a worrying time for children who can’t go to school.

The book deals with issues such as not seeing grandparents and coping with irritable parents who might be trying to work from home themselves at a stressful time. It drew on expert advice from a child psychologist and a professor from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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It’s already been translated into 45 languages and downloaded by more than a million people. A charity called Worldreader has put the book on a free app aimed at parents in developing countries where public health information may be scare. They can download it on their phone to read to children at night.

Scheffler says the reaction to the book has been overwhelming: “I’m not a doctor or a nurse but as an illustrator this was something I could do to help and I feel proud it has had this amazing response.”

Like all good children’s stories, the book ends on a positive note. There’s a picture of families, doctors and nurses celebrating together and the caption reads: “One day this strange time be over.”

Sheffler says right now hope is very important for children, “because one day this pandemic will indeed be over and then perhaps we can stand close together again as the characters do on the last page of this book.”


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