Quintessentially English, Shirley Hughes has delighted generations with her charming stories and beautiful illustrations.
Growing up near Liverpool, England in the 1930s -40s, Hughes enjoyed such illustrators as Arthur Rackam. She dreamed of being an illustrator but didn’t think the dream possible.
Hughes’ family was relatively well-to-do. Her father, T. J. Hughes founded a department store by that name, but died when Hughes was five. Her mother never remarried, raising three daughters quietly on her own.
World War II brought distractions. For Hughes academics were not emphasized during wartime. But she still enjoyed drawing —as well as escaping wartime reality in the cinema.
Looking back on her early years Hughes says,
I am pretty sure that having a lot of time to read, to dream or simply mooch about, played a major part in my becoming an author/illustrator. . . . With me, drawing stuck. I just went on doing it. I wrote too, but kept that secret.
After the war, Hughes’ love of the theater led her to study costume design at Liverpool Art School. She went on to study at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford. It was at Oxford that a conversation with an advisor caused her focus to turn toward illustration.
At first, Hughes illustrated the books of others, slowly rising in popularity. Then, in 1960, married and with two small children, she published her first book, Lucy and Tom. Hughes remembers how “tentative” she was in her early work. Yet, even then, Hughes’ focus was on daily, everyday life.
It was Dogger, though, published in 1977, that rocketed Hughes to fame, winning the Kate Greenaway Medal —Britain’s equivalent of the Caldecott— and her first book to be widely published abroad.
Since then, Hughes has written and illustrated over 50 stories. Her 2003 retelling of Cinderella, Ella’s Big Chance, won her a second Kate Greenaway.
Hughes’ work and illustrations were multicultural long before it became a buzzword. On English streets with adjoining red brick houses and long backyards, children of all ages and ethnicities play together: racing bikes, going to birthday parties, and helping each other out.
Times change, and Hughes, now 89, has definite opinions about the new generation.
. . . there are far fewer children running about outside; they’re all off being pushed towards their next academic achievement.
Reflecting on her work, Hughes says,
It’s my job with a picture book to slow children down, make them pore over the drawings and recognise their world . . . . Even before they read, they are learning to be readers, to notice things and make connections.
In Hughes’ books, everyday families and children are brought to life. Mums are harried by the end of the day, houses are untidy, children are grubby —but happy. Cheerful colors, kind faces, and a reassuring narrative voice combine to make wonderful children’s books.
While Hughes never mentions faith, her books are a celebration of family and traditional character values.
Dogger —introduced by Shirley Hughes
What Do Artists Do All Day —A two-part half hour documentary from the BBC
Many of Hughes’ stories are about Alfie and his little sister, Annie Rose. These include:
An Evening At Alfie’s
Mum and Dad go out, leaving the babysitter, but soon a problem emerges that interferes with bedtime!
Alfie Gets in First
—An everyday shopping trip is interrupted when, on returning to the house, Alfie accidentally locks Mum and a very tired Annie Rose outside.
Out and About
—Rhymes for younger children, featuring a cheerful little girl and her baby brother
Mentioned in Post
—Rightly a classic, Dave and his beloved Dogger will be loved by any child (and parent) who knows about special stuffed animals.
Ella’s Big Change
—a Jazz age retelling of Cinderalla, rather unconventional and absolutely wonderful!