Shirley Hughes is one of the best-loved and most innovative creators of books for young children. She has written and illustrated over 50 books, sold more than eight million copies, won major awards and created some of the most enduring characters in children's literature, including Lucy and Tom.
Born: West Kirby, July 16th 1927
Jobs: Freelance illustrator & writer
First Book as author and artist: Lucy & Tom's Day, 1960
Shirley Hughes was born and brought up in the Wirral, in the era of George Formby, the Liverpool Blitz and the G.I. invasion of Lancashire. Shirley fondly remembers childhood visits to the cinema and to the Liverpool Playhouse and the Empire, where such performers as Noel Coward would appear prior to a London run. Early visual influences included Ardizzone, classic book illustrations by Rackham and Dulac and American comics – Blondie, Dagwood, L'il Abner and Little Nemo.
Shirley trained at Liverpool School of Art and the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford. "I had a good training in figure drawing, and acquired the lifelong habit of keeping sketchbooks and illustrated diaries," says Shirley. Her ambition was to be a set designer, but a brief experience as a dogsbody at the Birmingham Rep changed her mind. Nevertheless, the influence of theatre remains in Shirley's work. "Writing and illustrating," she says, "is like being a stage director and a troupe of actors all rolled into one."
Shirley began her career in children's books by illustrating other writers' work - "very 'home counties' in those days - 10 or 12 line drawings, colour on the jacket. But not pony books. I was useless at drawing ponies". Her first big break was with The Hill War - a book about the Scottish moors, which required a lot of line work. The book led to work illustrating fairy tales, which in turn yielded a commission to illustrate a book by Noel Streatfeild - the doyenne of children's books at that time. This, in turn, brought Shirley a huge coup - the chance to illustrate the latest title in Dorothy Edwards' popular My Naughty Little Sister series. This collaboration proved so successful that Edwards asked Hughes to reillustrate all the existing titles in the series.
Shirley's professional and private life came together as she raised a young family and gained first-hand experience of how children behave and what they like to read. This influenced the first book that Shirley wrote as well as illustrated - Lucy & Tom's Day, published in 1960. As Shirley says, "at that time... there weren't many books for young children about real life - what it feels like getting up in the morning, going to the shops, having lunch and so on." This idea proved so popular that Lucy and Tom became a series, which continues to evoke feelings of warmth and familiarity amongst readers. In 1977, Shirley won the Kate Greenaway medal for Dogger, another tale of an ordinary and yet monumental family incident - the loss of a much-loved toy.
Shirley's Alfie books also draw their appeal from familiar elements. At the same time, they show how experimental an artist and designer Shirley Hughes is. From her wordless picture book Up and Up, through the split-screen technique of Alfie Gets in First, to the lush cinemascope of Enchantment in the Garden, Hughes never stops innovating.
In 1984, Shirley Hughes received the Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished services to children's literature. In 1999, she was awarded an OBE.
Shirley's daughter, Clara Vulliamy, is herself a picture book creator. "We don't comment on each other's work too much," says Clara, "although occasionally I'll ask for an opinion and, very sparingly, she'll make some suggestions... there's nobody's respect I'd rather have. As an illustrator, she is second to none."
WHAT SHE SAYS...
"I reach for a pencil at a very early stage and draw the main characters. That's when the story starts to take shape. A good picture book is never words with illustrations added later to make it look more attractive. As with a movie, the word and image develop together, independently."
"The rough dummy is the essence of the book... I use very smooth thin drawing paper which I can just see through, so that I can place one idea for a spread over another and compare them. At this stage I draw in pencil and go over it with felt pen which gives a good clear photocopy. Unfettered by the tensions which are imposed when you are doing the finished artwork... you are drawing very unselfconsciously, concentrating entirely on the storyline and the characters. The resulting sketches, not surprisingly, have a vitality and economy of gesture and expression which it is quite hard to reproduce again when it comes to the finished work."
"My books have grown out of real situations with which very small children can identify, perhaps even at an age before they can fully appreciate fairy tales. They are mostly set in a city background - my own part of London to be exact. The domestic details are very local and English, but I hope the themes are fairly universal."
"When I am working on a book I am running on two tracks - controlling the technique (or trying to) and at the same time inhabiting my characters. Even very small readers can develop a strong loyalty to fictional characters once they have taken them to heart. I learned that through reading with my own children."
"I want the children looking at my books to feel that they want to see round the corner; I want them to feel they are in the picture they are looking at."
"I would like to think I draw with sentiment but never with sentimentality. Family life is a high drama, not a sweet idyll."
"The picture book is such a wonderful form and so much hasn't been done with it yet."
"I want children, however tiny they are, and wherever they live, to use their eyes, to look out and see that it's ravishingly beautiful out there."
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT SHIRLEY HUGHES...
"Shirley Hughes is the doyenne of the picture book world. At the mention of her name booksellers beam, librarians wax lyrical and fellow children's authors opine that it is time she retired and gave the rest of them a chance... her secret, over four decades of illustration, has been to stay ahead of the field, constantly analysing her readership, responding to its growing sophistication, pushing at the limits of visual storytelling and always doing it with humour." TES
"If she didn't do children's books, she'd be a Dame by now. She has probably done more for our status than anyone else." Colin McNaughton
"She will be remembered for the warmth and humour with which she has captured the fast changes in the family throughout the second half of the twentieth century." The Guardian
"A remarkable artist and author whose picture books should be on every child's shelf." The Times
"Shirley Hughes infuses ordinary domestic scenes with a mixture of cosiness and magic that pulls the reader into the pages." The Good Book Guide
"A great alphabet book certainly, but lots more as well." Practical Parenting on Lucy & Tom's a.b.c.
"Shirley Hughes' wonderful story and illustrations portray the perfect family Christmas we would all love to experience, but so rarely do." Right Start on Lucy & Tom's Christmas
"This little book has delighted children for nineteen years, and it still pulls them in." The Primary English Magazine on It's Too Frightening For Me
Kate Greenaway Medal 1977 for Dogger
Eleanor Farjeon Award for Services to Children's Literature 1984
OBE for Services to Children's Literature 1998
PLACE AND DATE OF BIRTH:
West Kirby, Wirral, near Liverpool; 16 July 1927
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
MOST TREASURED POSSESSION:
A self-portrait of my daughter Clara
'My Very Good Friend, the Milkman' sung by Fats Waller
1940s, 1950s black-and-white Hollywood detective movies
When did you start writing?
As a child. There were few entertainments in war time, so we drew, wrote, read, acted plays to amuse ourselves. Drawing was my main passion. I just went on and on doing it. Writing was something secret which I kept under wraps. After art school I freelanced as an illustrator of other authors' books and had small children to read to. It was then I decided to have a go at writing my own picture-book text, Lucy and Tom's Day.
Where do you get your ideas?
Usually from one very strong image - a little boy running very fast up the street, a grandpa and grandchild burning a Christmas tree, a row of toddlers in buggies. As I am an illustrator I reach for a pencil at a very early stage and draw the main characters. That's when the story starts to take shape. A good picture book is never words with illustrations added later to make it look more attractive. As with a movie, word and image develop together, interdependently.
Can you give your top three tips to becoming a successful author?
1. Writing, like drawing, football or playing an instrument, is a skill and has to be constantly practised. Keep diaries, make storyboards, strip cartoons, write down observations.
2. Never be put off if something doesn't come out right. Put it on one side and try something else.
3. Good writers are always good readers. Store away ideas, keep your ears flapping on the bus, and a sharp eye for interesting incidents.
Having terrific laughs with members of my family. Sitting under a tree in a sunny Italian landscape with a sketchbook and a glass of wine. Being in my workroom. Playing with grandchildren.
Favourite place in the world and why?
Home, of course.
What are your hobbies?
Looking at paintings. Sewing, designing clothes.
If you hadn't been a writer, what do you think you would have been?
A dress designer.