How Shirley Hughes captured the everyday magic of childhood ‹ Literary Hub

Every morning when my one-year-old puts on her pink rain boots to go to the backyard, she tells me, “Like Alfie.” Last week at the supermarket, she asked if we could buy Grandma a bouquet of flowers for her birthday, which is five months from now, like the ones Lucy buys for his Grandma.

She’s impersonating two of her favorite children’s book characters, each along with her siblings, who star in a series by British author Shirley Hughes, who died on February 25 at the age of 94. Two sets of siblings, Lucy and Tom and Alfie and Annie Rose, go with my daughter in the car or to the doctor’s office, just like other kids bring their loves for quick comfort. The books she studies are smeared with my own fingerprints and scribbled by my brother. They are the first books I read to him when he was born and the ones I hope he will also pass on to him. They are books in which nothing and everything happens at once, and the children are in constant movement, like my little boy. Alfie could leave a beloved stuffed elephant on the bus, or the cat could have kittens. Grandma could bake cookies and let the kids use the cookie cutter. It might rain, but when it clears up, everyone will put on their rain boots and go for a walk.

Shirley Hughes wrote more than 50 books and illustrated some 200 with pen and ink, gouache, and watercolor. Her scenes are essentially English. They present unsentimental dramas that elevate both the worldliness and the small crises of childhood. On abcs of lucy and tom, one of the books that my daughter travels with, “I is formal”, which is extremely tedious, and Tom calls other people over to his bed to entertain him. On Alfie in the nursery, Annie Rose is too young to go to school with her older brother, which annoys her every morning by dropping her off, until she decides to join him on stage at the summer concert. But alongside these kinds of dramas, Hughes captures the everyday magic of a child’s early years.

Shirley Hughes

Hughes’s childhood was spent in a small English town during World War II, where he managed a lot of inspiration for his books, including a cat that often disappeared, breaking his heart each time before returning home. He came up with ideas even in the midst of rationing and air raids. When the GIs came to Liverpool, she got her hands on American comics for the first time, just as she was beginning to seriously consider art in her late teens. “A tremendous influence for me, of course, was comics,” she said. “You learn about the line [from comics]but above all you learn to tell a story, which is what I am doing in a different way”.

There is no fantasy in Hughes’s stories, just the thrill of discovery.

Hughes studied life drawing at Ruskin College of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. She began illustrating while raising her three children in the West London neighborhood of Notting Hill, where she frequently allowed interviewers to film her working at home, wringing out her gouache tubes and going to work on the “terrible battles of very serious problems”. things” that children face, such as “putting shoes on the right feet, going to a birthday party without their security blanket… is very important for a young child”.

It is precisely the way Hughes’s illustrations honor the children at the center of his books that makes them so extraordinary. “You go out to the park and there are all these children playing,” he told the BBC in a 2017 documentary largely filmed at his home. “Her mannerisms of hers, it’s not just her face, it’s the way they all crouch down together when they’re looking at something really intently and then they all jump up and run away like a flock of starlings. And the way they stand when they’re not sure of themselves. The way their feet move when they’re a little nervous, and then they’re wildly gleeful and launch into the air. Oh, it’s lovely.

There is no fantasy in Hughes’s stories, just the thrill of discovery. No one can fly or change shape, but they can turn on the Christmas tree lights for the first time or get a new pair of rain boots and figure out which boot goes on which foot. The stories are low stakes and include scenes straight from real life that totally absorb kids. On One afternoon at Alfie’s house,a pipe bursts when there is a babysitter. On puppy, which won a Kate Greenaway Medal when it was first published in 1977 and was later voted Britain’s favorite picture book in a 2007 poll, a little boy loses then finds his beloved stuffed animal.

Victories are the daily conflicts that can turn a family upside down, but rarely turn into a compelling story later in an adult world. But for children, especially preschoolers like my daughter, these stories teach them all about the order of the world. She knows that every morning she has to put on her shirt, and she takes comfort in knowing that Alfie does the same. She recognizes, in life and art, the familiar rhythm of playing and running boring errands with her mother and going to school and celebrating birthdays.


Hughes’s doesn’t put moral lessons at the center of its work, except on occasion as a complement to kindness. They are more a day in the life than an adventure, because everything, according to the Hughes books, can be an adventure. And everything deserves our attention. “I want children to learn to look, to stop at an image and not rush from page to page,” he explained to the BBC. “They have a lot to deal with in terms of having to be fast reactors. And I think that the enjoyment of art… [comes from] looking carefully, and looking as long as you want.

Hughes’s books have sold 11 million copies and are loved in the UK, but largely unknown in the US. My own family discovered them during the two years we spent living in London when I was a child, and I try, with the zeal of an evangelist, to give them to all my friends’ children so that they can be absorbed by the detailed illustrations (the Washington Post called Hughes “the Rubens of children’s illustrators”) and the active scenes of playgrounds, or stories about children’s tricycles and the politics of the block in which they live. The children in Hughes’s book are never still—apparently, Hughes drew the neighborhood children almost as quickly as he saw them. “I lurk in parks and playgrounds with a sketchbook and see what I see,” he says. saying The Guardian in 2017.

Hughes leaves behind a body of work that reminds his readers of the real-world agency of children at the heart of his stories.

Their shoelaces are untied, their stuffed animals are missing an ear, their school bags fly as they walk out the door to their waiting siblings. But his material worlds, illustrated in such detail, are also packed with action. There is no light wood or white carpet in their houses. His shoes get kicked under the furniture and the cat eats everything the baby has dropped from the high chair. Bella, the older sister of puppy, sleeps with seven teddy bears in his bed, and Lucy in the lucy and tom The series keeps books under his pillow when he goes to bed, “just in case.” Families are kind to each other, even if siblings fight. At the end of each story, everyone gathers for tea and a biscuit.


Hughes treats children as serious subjects, their concerns and interests are an integral part of the rhythms of a family. There are major disappointments and losses along with surprises and discoveries. Hughes’s insistence on the primacy of children’s emotions, even and especially the most illogical ones, are his legacy.

I get tired of reading many books to my daughter, but I will never get tired of reading Shirley Hughes books to her. I see my daughter in the pages, but I also see a forgotten version of myself. Hughes leaves behind a body of work that reminds her readers of the real-world agency of children at the heart of her stories. She also reminds me to look closer, more carefully and as long as she wants.

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