Last week my Twitter feed was overflowing with warmth, gratitude, memory and reflection in the wake of people hearing that Shirley Hughes is no longer with us. For many, she has been an intergenerational author, delighting people when they were children, then as parents reading to their children and even once more within the same lifetime, as grandparents reading to their grandchildren. This huge span came about because Shirley’s first book solely created by her – Lucy and Tom’s Day – appeared in 1960. She has gave us 60 years worth of work and no doubt there’ll be one or two more to come out of the drawers.
Many of the people talking about the books on social media have homed in on the strongly personal effect they had. It’s not hard to see why. Shirley created art, stories and poetry that took children’s feelings as seriously as others take adults’ feelings. We live in a strange cultural world in which a fair number of people devote a lot of attention and expense exploring the importance and long-lasting effect of their childhood emotions and yet artists who dwell on such things in a way that is accessible for children are often placed low down in the league table of great art. Clear favourites among Shirley’s books on my social media seem to be Dogger, any of the Alfie books – especially Alfie Gets in First, and Out and About. So how did she do it? What are the ingredients of her work that had this great effect?
In my conversations and interviews with her, she pinpointed several things: her grounding in life drawing (she trained at the Ruskin School of Art), and her strong rejection of the idea that she was delivering something “cosy”. Of course, children’s books are by and large reassuring – at least in their conclusions. The point about Shirley’s books is that on the way, they created moments of danger, loss, or, to borrow a frequent family word, “bother”. These are actually big moments, and by that I mean big for very young children, who in Shirley’s worldview are not made insignificant for being very young. Just take one cataclysmic moment from Dogger: Dave has lost his soft toy, it turns up on a stall at the school summer fair. He tried to explain that it’s his – but no, he has to buy it. But he hasn’t got enough money to buy it. He rushes off to get more money, gets it, but when he comes back, someone else has bought Dogger.
For Dave in the book, and for a child hearing or reading the story and indeed for any empathetic adult, this is a moment of anguish. What comes into play here is basic feelings about attachment and detachment. Dogger is Dave’s “transitional object”, his mother substitute if you like, and he is forcibly separated from it. The work done by readers reading literature is done right here: we make connections between events, thoughts and emotions through metaphors and symbols. Dogger is Dogger, but what Shirley has shown Dogger to be for Dave, and what Shirley shows happens to Dogger, means a lot more. And being detached is a feeling that isn’t bounded by age, which explains why and how Shirley’s books are, as I say, so intergenerational.
Another way of putting this is to say that Shirley was very knowledgable about children and childhood, but clearly this knowledge wasn’t put into psychology textbooks. It’s in the psychodramas she plays out on the pages of her books. The point about her life drawing is not just that she was good at it, but also that the faces, gestures, body shapes and postures of the children she painted are each full of living drama. We might say that of course they feel very human or that they’re lively, or warm, but their ability to capture tiny but significant changes of mood – irritation, wonder hopelessness, generosity, cunning – is quite remarkable.
By the way, I can remember her demonstrating to me how the pages in her books were varied according to a principle: she wanted the child’s eye to be constantly surprised by each new double-page spread. Each page should, she thought, be full of discoveries, things to explore and find.
Missing from all this, though, is something else: Shirley Hughes bore witness to a changing landscape, cityscape and human-scape of the last 60 years. I have 16 or so of her books and across the pages, we can see the unfolding of a culturally diverse community, living and working in the spaces that urban living gives us. In the collection of four stories, Tales of Trotter Street, Shirley’s eye moves across faces, two people talking, groups at play, toys, animals, schools, home interiors, parks, street scenes, and people at work. All the while, she dwells on the “thinginess of things” so we can hear the concrete mixer and pick up the red cup.
Children’s literature has contributed more than a fair share to the world “pastoral” – a rural idyll with more than a hint of Eden. This is not to knock it; I’m as big a fan of the Hundred Acre Wood and the Wild Wood, as the next person, but Shirley broke with that tradition. Her characters are rooted in an urban space, facing difficulties, overcoming them more often than not with love and kindness.
I sense that she challenged herself to do this. She didn’t rely on conjuring up a misty view of her own childhood but looked very hard at what family, school and street looked and felt like around her, her children and her children’s children.
Her body of work is a gift, given to children and those who care for children. It enables us to care for each other.