By Kerry Law
Once upon a time there was a witch, a stick man, a whale, a snail, a dragon, a giant, a highway rat and a Gruffalo… and they all decided to live together in Stratford! Well, that’s how the story goes at the Discover Children’s Story Centre, as they celebrate the work of superstar picture-book duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.
A World Inside a Book: Gruffalos, Dragons and Other Creatures is the UK’s first immersive exhibition of Donaldson and Scheffler’s work—and it’s a really magical experience.
In the waiting area, adults can appreciate the many original drawings from Donaldson and Scheffler’s famous books, which adorn the walls alongside behind-the-scenes detail of how some of our favourite books came into being. The experience proper begins with a storytelling session set in the living room of Charlie Cook (he of …Favourite Book fame) with a lively rendition of Superworm. However, without giving too much away, we then find ourselves in another world, where Donaldson and Scheffler’s books have come to life. Large 3D models, atmospheric lighting, life-size sets, props and toys draw everyone in for around half an hour of free play and exploration.
The technicolour set design is spot-on, with Scheffler’s distinctive style everywhere you look. There is a lot to explore, and the children on our visit were suitably wowed for the first few minutes before getting involved and moving from ‘book’ to ‘book’, playing the games or simply looking in wonder at so many recognisable characters. You can ride a horse as The Highway Rat, be the witch in Room on the Broom, collect snails in The Snail and the Whale (perhaps my favourite), dress as a monkey in Monkey Puzzle, take tea in the house of A Squash and a Squeeze, go to Dragon School with Zog, play with Stick Man, explore the town of The Smartest Giant in Town, and meet the Gruffalo (be prepared to wait your turn for photos here).
When the bell sounds it’s time to leave, but you must top and tail your visit with a general look around the Centre (the Story World and Story Garden) itself. Arranged over two floors, with an outdoor adventure playground, children are encouraged to let their imaginations run riot around this interactive play zone. Story World was redesigned in 2016 by illustrator Jim Field (he of Oi Frog and more) and it’s infused with a wonderful atmosphere that is part Clangers, part Heath Robinson. There is a backstory involving the alien Hootah, who is on a story-collecting mission after everyone runs out of imagination on his planet, Squiggly Diggly. Among the code-cracking puzzles, word games and slides are a few quieter corners full of books for those who simply want to curl up with their favourite book—just like Charlie Cook.
A World Inside a Book: Gruffalos, Dragons and Other Creatures is suitable for children aged 0 to 8 years (although older children are welcome) and runs until January 2019. Sessions are timed and last approximately 40 minutes—check the website for time slots and full details. Tickets cost £1.50 in addition to the Discover day pass price of £6.50 for adults and children 2 years and over. Children aged 1 to 2 years are £2 and under 1s are free. Family tickets (for four) cost £22 and annual passes are available if you intend to visit a few times a year.
The Discover Children’s Story Centre is open every day from 10am to 5pm.
Visit www.discover.org.uk for full details.