Shirley Hughes, beloved English children’s author, dies at 94


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.”

While her themes were universal, her settings — Victorian terrace houses, birthday teas — were inescapably English. “Oh Shirley,” she recalled publishers telling her, “you are so middle class, so English, you will never sell abroad.”

Yet Ms. Hughes acquired a wide readership with “Dogger” (1977), which she called “the most quintessentially English book you could imagine.” Set during a school sports day, the picture book told the story of a boy who loses his beloved toy dog: “One of his ears pointed upwards and the other flopped over. His fur was worn in places because he was quite old. He belonged to Dave.”

Translated into more than a dozen languages, “Dogger” won the Kate Greenaway Medal, a top British honor for illustrated children’s books, and was voted the public’s favorite Greenaway winner of all time in 2007, for the 50th anniversary of the award. “Hughes has a kindly, inexhaustible eye — she misses nothing,” the Observer literary critic Kate Kellaway wrote in 2010, including “Dogger” on a list of the 10 best illustrated children’s books.

Ms. Hughes had another hit with her Alfie series, which began with “Alfie Gets in First” (1981), about a boy who accidentally locks himself inside his house. Realizing that he can’t reach the latch to get out, Alfie bursts into tears. With his mother and baby sister locked outside, the rest of the neighborhood tries to help, including a milkman who offers to pick the lock and a window cleaner who brings his ladder to climb up to a bedroom window.

“ ‘Dogger’ and ‘Alfie’ are about the tiniest of incidents — down to the stress of putting your shoes on — but these things can be a source of real anxiety for a child,” children’s author Philip Pullman said in a 2009 interview with the Guardian. “And I think this is where she is actually better than [E.H.] Shepard,” who illustrated “The Wind in the Willows” and “Winnie-the-Pooh,” and who served as an inspiration for Ms. Hughes.

While some of Shepard’s drawings could be “diabetes-inducingly sentimental,” Pullman continued, “you just don’t get that in Shirley. She is much clearer and sharper, and therefore provides a genuinely warmer version of childhood.”

Ms. Hughes’s own upbringing was framed by World War II, a period that she described as one of occasional fear but mainly intense boredom, in which she and her older sisters passed the time by drawing pictures and acting out plays, sometimes for their cats. She wrote about the war in several books for older children, including “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1998), about a boy who is evacuated to the English countryside during the Blitz, and “Hero on a Bicycle” (2012), her first novel, about a 13-year-old Italian boy during the Nazi occupation of Florence.

But picture books remained her focus, even as she broadened her audience with books such as “Bye Bye Birdie” (2009), a wordless, expressionistic fable geared toward adult readers, about a dapper young man whose love interest transforms into a predatory bird.

“It is a sad thing for adults and children alike if, once we have learned to read, the pictures in our books are sternly removed,” she wrote in a 2004 essay for the Guardian. “They not only add to the pleasure of turning a page, they are the connection through which readers acquire the amazing human attribute of being able to get pictures in the head. And these, of course, are the best illustrations we will ever see.”

The youngest of three daughters, Shirley Hughes was born in the seaside town of West Kirby near Liverpool on July 16, 1927. Her father served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I and founded the Liverpool department store T.J. Hughes. He died when Ms. Hughes was 5, in what newspaper reports at the time suggested was a suicide.

Her mother “became very shy,” Ms. Hughes recalled, and often took her to the theater, helping to cultivate an interest in set design and costumes. At age 16, Ms. Hughes left school to study at the Liverpool School of Art, later attending the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, where an instructor encouraged her switch from theater to illustration.

The two art forms were not entirely different, said Ms. Hughes, who compared the page to a stage set: “But this is a very intimate theater, which the audience can return to again and again. The characters you draw are like actors on a stage carrying the narrative along with gestures and facial expressions.”

Moving to London, she launched her career as a freelance artist, illustrating Dorothy Edwards’s “My Naughty Little Sister” series as well as children’s books by Noel Streatfeild. In 1960, she published her first picture book, “Lucy and Tom’s Day.” Later came books including “Out and About” (1988), a poetry collection for young readers, and “Ella’s Big Chance” (2003), a Jazz Age retelling of Cinderella — in this case a red-haired young woman named Ella Cinders — that earned Ms. Hughes her second Greenaway Medal.

She also collaborated with her daughter, Clara Vulliamy, on the Dixie O’Day series, about the adventures of a dog who drives around the British countryside in a bright red car. After the death of her husband, architect John Vulliamy, in 2007, she said she started writing children’s novels to help fill the time.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include two sons — Ed, an author and journalist, and Tom, a molecular biology professor — and a number of grandchildren.

Ms. Hughes received an OBE, or officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to children’s literature in 1999, and was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2017. She was still writing in recent years, publishing a sequel to “Dogger” at age 93 in 2020, and often extolled the pleasures of reading in interviews, encouraging parents to give their children time and space to slow down and pick up a book.

“If there’s anything wrong with childhood today,” she told the Guardian in 2015, “[it’s] that there’s too much on offer and everything moves at great speed. What I want children to do is linger, turn the page, see themselves as readers long before they can read.”



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