Shirley Hughes: British Author and Illustrator Whose Books Entertained Generations of Young Readers and Their Parents

From a New York Times obit by Jan Benzel headlined “Shirley Hughes, Whose Books Depicted Children’s Mini-Dramas, Dies at 94”:

Shirley Hughes, a British author and illustrator whose picture books about the quotidian dramas and escapades of children entertained and reassured generations of young readers and their parents, died on Friday at her home in West London….

Ms. Hughes, whose own childhood was circumscribed by World War II, wrote and illustrated more than 70 books for children of all ages, including two novels for young adults.

She was perhaps best known for “Dogger” (1977), in which a boy named Dave loses his beloved stuffed toy when he’s distracted by a school fair and the prospect of an ice cream cone. Drama ensues, relayed in Ms. Hughes’s direct, prosaic sentences. After a couple of mild cliffhangers and an intervention by Dave’s older sister, Dave and Dogger are reunited.

Her most recent book, a seasonal sequel called “Dogger at Christmas,” was published in 2020, when she was 92.

Ms. Hughes became a beloved figure in England, honored by Queen Elizabeth II and showered with awards. She welcomed interviewers into her home in Notting Hill, where they filmed her wearing clothing she had made herself, her white hair escaping her topknot, as she sat at her drawing board demonstrating with a sure hand how she made her books, of which more than 12 million were sold worldwide.

She spent hours at neighborhood playgrounds, watching the way children moved, stood, ran and played. She was most fascinated by how children’s physicality conveyed emotion — triumph and shyness, fear and sadness, determination and jubilation, intentionally or not. She would return to her drawing board to sketch out her motion studies with quick, impressionistic strokes, to be colored later with gouache.

The stories she illustrated and imagined for her young protagonists — getting locked into the house with all the grown-ups on the other side of the door, delighting in a best chum with a penchant for troublemaking — portray the grand dramas of a child-size world from the perspectives of those who inhabit it.

“The illustrations are deft — realistic yet dreamy,” the novelist Mary Gordon wrote in 1984, assessing three “Alfie” books. “They depict a world of blissfully disheveled kids in catch-as-catch-can clothing.”

Ms. Hughes often expressed concern about the growing pressures on children. “They always have something to do,” Ms. Hughes said in 2017. “It is difficult to protect them from being overstimulated. My whole idea is to slow them down and get them to make a leisurely examination of a picture at their own pace.”

They shouldn’t be pressured to read, she said. “It’s not a competition, though you’d think it was the way some parents go on.”

She firmly believed that children should be allowed to be bored, because, she said, boredom is fertile ground for the imagination and creativity. And she was aghast that books for older readers were not illustrated.

“I can’t bear hearing grown-ups telling children they can’t have picture books any more as they can read!” she wrote on her publisher’s website. “Why remove such a great narrative pleasure?” She included illustrations in all her books, including the novels.

Shirley Hughes was born on July 16, 1927, in West Kirby, a small English town near Liverpool. She was the youngest of three daughters of Thomas J. and Kathleen (Dowling) Hughes, who met at a public library after his return from service in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.

Her father was the founder of TJ Hughes, a bargain department store in Liverpool. Shirley was 5 years old when her father, after suffering acute depression and business setbacks, died, reportedly by suicide.

Shirley and her sisters and mother remained on the Wirral during World War II. Through years of rationing, blackouts, bombings and crushing tedium, Shirley and her sisters amused themselves by playing dress-up and putting on theatrical productions, which led Shirley to study costume design at Liverpool Art School, and from there to pursue drawing at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford.

Although she left theater behind early on, Ms. Hughes thought of her picture books as stagecraft. In “Alfie Gets Home First,” she splits the stage, showing the grown-ups on one page, on the outside of a locked door, and Alfie on the other.

Ms. Hughes counted the illustrators Arthur Rackham and E.H. Shepard among her influences, but also Buster Keaton movies and the American comic strips that reached Britain during the war, in which motion and emotion were so graphically on display….

For Ms. Hughes, the Nazi bombing of English cities and towns in 1940 and 1941 remained visceral memories. Her first novel for young adults, “Hero on a Bicycle,” about a family living just outside Florence, Italy, during World War I, was published in 2012, and she drew upon her own experience in “Whistling in the Dark” (2015), about the wartime experiences of a teenage girl and her family and friends in Liverpool.

In both books, the fathers are absent: In the first, he is off fighting in the Resistance; in the second, he is a war casualty at sea. The Blitz also figures in “Ruby in the Ruins” (2018); in that book, the father returns from war, but so changed that he feels to Ruby like a stranger in the house.

In 2017, Ms. Hughes was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to literature. Her many awards include two Kate Greenaway medals, a prestigious British prize that recognizes children’s book illustration — in 1977 for “Dogger” and in 2003 for “Ella’s Big Chance.”

Ms. Hughes and her architect husband, John Vulliamy, raised three children in their Notting Hill home (television watching was strictly rationed), where they moved in 1954….

Ms. Hughes said she spent “quite a lot of time” in her later years answering children’s letters. “The spelling may sometimes be a bit dodgy, but they nearly always include a drawing,” she told The Guardian.

“How do you get good at drawing?” or “How do I stop my story going boring in the middle?” they asked, and once, “How do I make it beautiful?”

“I’m still trying to work out the answer to that one,” Ms. Hughes said.

Also see the Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Shirley Hughes, beloved English children’s author, dies at 94.”The opening grafs:

Shirley Hughes, a British children’s author and illustrator who captivated generations of young readers with warm, tender books about everyday dramas and heartbreaks — digging for worms, stamping in puddles, discovering that a favorite toy has gone missing — died Feb. 25 at her home in London.

While other beloved children’s authors wrote about talking animals, magical spells or dreamlike adventures in distant lands, Ms. Hughes focused on all the real things children experienced, including pint-size dramas that adults sometimes seemed to miss. “They are learning more at this stage than at any other, grappling with these big things: Are my boots on the right feet? Can I safely put my security blanket down? You have to tap into the way they feel about these things,” she told the Times of London.

Honored by Queen Elizabeth II as well as the British reading charity BookTrust, which gave her its inaugural lifetime achievement award in 2015, Ms. Hughes wrote more than 50 books that collectively sold over 11 million copies. She started out illustrating other people’s books before writing and drawing her own stories in the 1960s, while raising three children in the Notting Hill section of West London.

Traveling across the city with a sketch pad, she recorded scenes that provided inspiration for her work. “I lurk about in parks and play areas with a sketchbook and observe what I see: the way small children move when they are playing, how they stand when they are rather unsure of themselves, or crouch down to examine something minutely, then take off like a flock of birds,” she told the Guardian in 2017. “Then I go home and make it all up.”…

Speak Your Mind