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.”
Kate Greenaway Medal 1977 for Dogger
Eleanor Farjeon Award for Services to Children’s Literature 1984
OBE for Services to Children’s Literature 1998