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In memory of Shirley Hughes: a reflection on the author’s classics

Beloved children’s author and illustrator Shirley Hughes has passed away at the age of 94. Her family have confirmed that she died on Friday 25 February. In her lifetime, Hughes wrote and illustrated over 50 books for children, with her most popular being the Alfie series, and Dogger. Her books at bedsides all around the country for the past 50 years are a testament to how well loved they have been by so many.

The book’s success has been global, with it proving popular despite it being very “English”

As a child, Hughes’ books were a part of my nighttime reading from as early as I can remember. Dogger was a particular favourite in our household, with myself and my siblings able to relate to the attachment to a much loved soft toy, and understanding Dave’s feelings when Dogger goes missing. The book’s success has been global, with it proving popular despite it being very “English” as far the story and the setting go (a large portion of the book is spent at a jumble sale). But, the universality of losing something dear to you appeals to a worldwide audience, making Dogger Hughes’ most successful book.

Another standout favourite from my childhood is one of the Alfie and Annie Rose stories: Bonting. Similar to Dogger, Bonting is a special stone that Alfie finds in his garden. Mum makes him a little swimming costume and Bonting joins the family for a trip to the seaside. However, at the end of the day, Alfie realises that Bonting is nowhere to be found. Alfie and Annie Rose are arguably the most recognisable of Hughes’ characters.

 I have distinct memories of my sister asking for Alfie Gets in First as a bedtime story on numerous occasions. The illustration of Alfie trapped inside the house with Mum and Annie Rose on the doorstep sticks in my memory more than the story itself.

Part of what makes Hughes’ stories so wonderful are the vivid illustrations that accompany her narratives. Before she began writing stories of her own, Hughes started out as an illustrator, working with other children’s authors such as Noel Streatfield and Dorothy Edwards for the My Naughty Little Sister series, another popular set of stories in my childhood. Throughout her career, she illustrated over 200 books. Hughes illustrations are captivating and iconic, instantly recognisable to those who know her work.

Hughes’ vivid paintings bring the story to life

 I realised just how discernable Hughes’ work is whilst writing this after I looked up another family favourite, A Throne for Sesame, which I believed to have been written by Hughes thanks to her iconic illustrations. The book was actually written by Helen Young. Hughes was featured on the BBC show “Read All About It” in 1978, just after Dogger was published. In her interview, she discusses how all her stories begin with the illustrations. She says she “thinks visually,” and the words come afterwards “like the captions of a silent movie.” Even for those who cannot read, the brilliance of Hughes’ illustrations provide all the information a child may need to understand a rough storyline.

Another family favourite that I had forgotten about is the “Sea Singing” story from the Stories by Firelight anthology. This tale was more affectionately known as the “Selkie story” to me. The narrative is a little more grown up than the Alfie stories or Dogger, and reads like a folktale or myth that is passed down through generations. Once again, Hughes’ vivid paintings bring the story to life, illustrating the Selkie wife’s sadness at being kept from her true home in the sea, and her husband’s anguish when she tricks him to escape.

Hughes captures the beauty in our quotidien lives as children through her colourful, detailed drawings

Shirley Hughes’ books are so successful because the stories she tells are those of comfort and relatability. She focuses on small moments of everyday childhood life, be that a birthday party, losing a toy, going to the seaside, making new friends; Hughes captures the beauty in our quotidien lives as children through her colourful, detailed drawings. Illustrator Benji Davies comments on how Hughes painting “exude so much warmth.” Her books have brought so many children great joy each bedtime for over 50 years, I have no doubt that they will continue to bring exciting adventures to new readers. In Hughes’ own words: “a good picture book is a complete world that you enter.”

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