Today, the iconic Shirley Hughes turns 90. And today DadReads goes out on a limb to declare that Shirley Hughes may well be the greatest living children’s author and illustrator in the world. I am open to counter-arguments, but for longevity in the industry and consistent quality of output, who else is even in the same league?
Eric Carle? He is now 88, and it is nearly fifty years since he produced The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one of the most universal childhood classics of all time. But some of his other works have been positively dull. Carle’s The Very Quiet Cricket is the slowest-moving cricket book since Test Cricket Lists.
Judith Kerr? At 94, she remains best known for the Mog series and The Tiger who Came to Tea. They are beloved books for some, but I’ve always found her work a little strange, and certainly lacking the warmth of Shirley Hughes.
From the Antipodes there is Pamela Allen, who is 83, but in my opinion falls into the same category as Judith Kerr – quirky, and a little cold. If I was voting for the finest Australian or New Zealander it would be Graeme Base or Dame Lynley Dodd.
It is worth noting that some living greats – Mem Fox and Allan Ahlberg, for example – are authors only, and thus do not qualify as author-illustrators. I could accept arguments for Raymond Briggs, who is a worthy candidate, or for Sir Quentin Blake, whose pictures are iconic, but whose writing I personally am yet to read.
But for me, it’s Shirley Hughes. Maybe I’m swayed by nostalgia, because the stories featuring Alfie and Annie-Rose, and Lucy and Tom, were such a big part of my childhood. Re-reading them now takes me back to a warm and fuzzy place, but it’s a warm and fuzzy place that I know is shared by countless others around the world.
In Britain, Hughes is something of a national treasure. Her first book as author and illustrator, Lucy and Tom’s Day, came out in 1960. In an interview with The Guardian last month, she said she was currently working on another Alfie story. That’s nearly 60 years of output. Baby Boomers might have grown up with Shirley Hughes and could still today be enjoying her new works; their grandchildren may be growing up with her now, and can share the classics with their grandparents and parents.
In the UK right now there is almost a Festival of Shirley – she was recently guest editor of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and interviews with her have been featuring in various newspapers – celebrating both her 90th birthday and the 40th anniversary of one of her most beloved books, Dogger (a hardback anniversary edition of Dogger was published last month).
And Dogger really is beloved. Not only did it win the Kate Greenaway Medal for “distinguished illustration in a book for children” in 1977, but when the Medal celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007, Dogger was voted the best of the best, narrowly pipping another of my all-time favourites, Each Peach Pear Plum, to be named the finest winner in the Greenaway Medal’s history.
Dogger is the story of a little boy named Dave, his treasured soft toy dog, and his big sister Bella. One day, Dave loses Dogger while waiting with his mother to collect Bella from school, and a few days later, Dogger turns up for sale on the toy stall at the school fete. (As an aside, a huge percentage of Heidi’s books have come from school fetes – they are a goldmine of children’s books).
Dave doesn’t have the 3p he needs to buy Dogger back, and by the time he finds his big sister to help, another girl has bought Dogger. She refuses to sell him back to Dave, but Bella, who has just won a giant teddy bear in a three-legged race, comes to the rescue by trading her new teddy bear to the girl in return for Dogger. It is just the most beautiful moment of sibling love.
And this, I think, gets to the crux of why Shirley Hughes is so good. A memorable picture book might be funny (The Gruffalo), or intricate (Animalia), or whimsical (Hairy Maclary). Or, in the case of Dogger, it can be heartfelt. And heartfelt is deceptively difficult to achieve. The big risk is straying towards the saccharine (Guess How Much I Love You, for example, makes me want to vomit).
Shirley Hughes does heartfelt and warm with as much sincerity and skill as anyone. She has an incredible ability to empathise with children. Her stories are emotionally complex, just as little children are, and her illustrations are beautifully observed. She gets the small details right: the way Dave holds Dogger up to the school fence to show him the men setting up the fete, the subtly anxious look on Dave’s face as he tries to sleep without his beloved toy.
And she gets to the truth of how a child’s mind works, as when Bella wins her teddy bear:
"Dave didn’t like that teddy at all. At that moment he didn’t like Bella much either, because she kept on winning things."
I’m sure Dave still loved his sister, but at that moment he didn’t like her much. Kids, and especially those of toddler and pre-school age, are remarkably fickle, because they are still learning how to control their emotions. And with a two-year-old daughter, that is something that I am discovering more and more every day.
Perhaps Dogger resonates with me even more now because I’m a parent. I can just imagine the apprehension if Heidi’s favourite toy – an owl – was to go missing. And I can picture big sister Heidi looking after her little brother, Fletcher, in future years in just the way that Bella watches out for Dave.
If you don’t know Shirley Hughes and haven’t read her, you are missing out on a joyous experience. My other favourites as a child were Lucy and Tom’s Christmas, Alfie Gets in First, and An Evening At Alfie’s. I was introduced to Shirley Hughes by my Mum, who had first seen the books being read on Play School.
My Mum, Valerie, is a very talented illustrator herself – I would love to write a children’s book and have her illustrate it – and she loves Shirley Hughes now more than ever. In fact, I gave her Shirley’s autobiography for Mother’s Day this year, and I’m pleased to say it has sparked a renewed passion for the books. Now, my nearly 70-year-old Mum is actively compiling a library of Shirley Hughes books from secondhand shops and online. Here’s what Mum says about Shirley Hughes:
"Shirley Hughes is an observer. She sees the small details that we overlook. She can create a charming story from ordinary happenings, and her illustrations are full of colour and movement. I like these quotes from her book A Life Drawing.
'... to become a writer you must first become a reader, so becoming an illustrator is preceded by learning how to look.'
'Drawing means looking more intently and for longer than you do at any other time.'"Shirley Hughes has been looking intently for 60 years. That’s why she’s the best there is.