Nine years after his first book was published, Queenstown writer and musician Craig Smith has become an overnight sensation – thanks to a giggling, guffawing Scottish grandmother.
Beloved by Kiwi and Australian children since 2009, The Wonky Donkey tells of a three-legged – or “wonky” – donkey, adding a new adjective every few pages until it ends with (spoiler alert No. 1) a “spunky, hanky-panky cranky stinky dinky lanky honky-tonky winky wonky donkey”.
Smith, who has published eight children’s books and two albums, as well as two albums of his more serious music, takes up the story.
“Janice Clark is a Scottish grandmother living in Queensland. Her daughter Fiona bought the book from a recycling centre for 20 cents, because she thought her mum would enjoy reading it to her grandson, Archer. Luckily, Fiona was videoing as Janice started to read.”
As Janice reads to the four-month-old, she giggles more and more as the story progresses. “Oh dear, how can anybody read this seriously,” Janice says, through tears of laughter.
The family uploaded the video to Janice’s knitting group on Facebook and the rest is social media and bookselling history. When MiNDFOOD spoke to Smith, the video had been viewed more than 100 million times in six weeks.
“Of course, everyone wants to buy the book that made her laugh so much … and that’s led to the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia selling out.
“It was out of print in the US, so Scholastic ordered a reprint. The initial print run was 60,000, but it’s now selling about 100,000 copies a week in the US and [at time of interview] is the No. 1 selling book across all genres in the world.”
And that’s against serious blockbuster tomes such as Bob Woodward’s exposé on the Trump administration, Fear.
Smith is hoping to tour the US – he spends six months of the year on the road, talking and singing to schoolchildren across New Zealand, Australia and Asia – and has also been to Canada. But giggling grandmother Janice got the first call.
Major book chain Barnes & Noble invited her to have another go at reading The Wonky Donkey in its flagship New York store. Smith, unfortunately, had a prior engagement back home: “Janice got New York; I got the Hamilton A&P Show,” he laughs.
The lucky break couldn’t have come at a better time. Smith is about to publish the second story in the series, and there’s a twist in this tale, too. He says he was inspired by people like [NZ gold medal sprinter] Liam Malone and “all these amazing athletes” when he was watching the Paralympics.
“They’ve been thrown a real curve ball in their life. They might be in a wheelchair or have what people think is a disadvantage, and they’ve gone, ‘Bugger it, I’m going to go out and win a gold medal anyway.’
“If you look at Wonky Donkey, he may have a missing eye and missing leg and smell bad, but there’s nothing wrong with him. It’s a subtle message.
“I get great emails from people who are looking after kids with so-called disabilities or working with kids who are new to wearing a prosthesis. They leave the book lying around and the kids pick it up. The whole idea is to show kids that they are not alone.”
Smith put two and two together and contacted Paralympics New Zealand. We could tell you what Wonky Donkey gets up to next, but that would be spoiler alert No. 2.
The singer-songwriter and author, who credits his illustrators, design team and publishers as equal partners in his success, advocates for parents to read to their children.
“We’re finding that some kids’ reading abilities aren’t so good – especially when you’ve got so many digital technologies floating around. It’s important to get kids to pick up a book and read: even more so if you can get the parents to sit down and read books to the kids.
“There are definite links to being able to read and get jobs, to function in life, so it’s super-important for children to read.”
Smith’s goal is to have parents and children enjoy the books they read. “Janice Clark is the ultimate expression of that. If I can get adults to laugh as much as – if not more – than kids, then it’s job done.”
Braying for success
A video uploaded to Facebook helped catapult Craig Smith’s picture book, The Wonky Donkey, into position as the No. 1 selling book across all genres in the world. Get ready to guffaw: the author is writing the second in the series.