Shirley Hughes' Timeless Appeal

Shirley Hughes' Timeless Appeal

Shirley Hughes books and prints

Every month we blog about an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. Last time we wrote about a strikingly original contemporary illustrator from Belgium, Kaatje Vermeire. This month we’ve chosen a customer and staff favourite, the beloved Shirley Hughes.

Shirley Hughes' Timeless Appeal

Portrait of Shirley Hughes from Walker Books' website. 

Shirley Hughes is best known for her Alfie series, about the daily lives of a little boy called Alfie, his sister Annie Rose, and their family and community. Hughes' stories are warm and comforting and her illustration style is nostalgic and naturalistic. Children love her books because they can recognise their own daily lives in the stories, and adults love them for their sweetness and gentle humour. Alfie was a big part of childhood for people who grew up in the 80s and 90s, but Hughes is far from retired. Her latest book, Ruby in the Ruins, came out just last month!

Early life

Born in 1927, Shirley Hughes grew up in a well-to-do suburb of Liverpool. Her father was the owner of a chain of department stores who she rarely saw, and he died when Hughes was five. Her family was class conscious and relatively affluent, but upon the outbreak of war her widowed mother “went from sitting in her nice garden with the maid bringing her tea to being this hard-pressed figure wearing an overcoat inside because it was so cold”, as Hughes told The Telegraph in an interview last year. She has said that the boredom of a wartime childhood necessitated developing her imagination and entertaining herself with drawing and writing. 

Alfie prints by Shirley Hughes

Alfie and Annie Rose playing in the garden. Buy the print here

As a budding artist, Shirley Hughes was inspired by golden age illustrators like Arthur Rackham, and by trips to the cinema. She wasn’t particularly interested in academia, and at age 16 she left school to study costume design at the Liverpool School of Art, and later the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. "I wrote too, but kept that secret", she told Walker Books. An interest in theatre led to an interest in narrative art, she began working in the picture book format and making lithograph illustrations. Soon she was being commissioned to illustrate other author's books. Her breakthrough as a children’s book illustrator came in 1968, when Methuen commissioned her to illustrate the latest book in Dorothy Edwards’ popular My Naughty Little Sister series.

Buy Dorothy Edwards' My Naughty Little Sister, illustrated by Shirley Hughes

Shirley Hughes' illustration for Dorothy Edwards' My Naughty Little Sister. Buy it here

My Naughty Little Sister began as a series of radio broadcasts, based on the author Dorothy Edwards’ childhood memories and the bedtime stories she told her own children. The stories came from a working class storytelling tradition and were full of warmth and humour. When Shirley Hughes illustrated them, her expressive style and endearing character designs suited the stories so well that the author asked her publisher if Hughes could re-illustrate the previous books as well. Shirley Hughes’ vision of My Naughty Little Sister is now inextricably linked with the stories for generations of readers. Last year Egmont released a beautiful treasury of My Naughty Little Sister stories, with Hughes’ original illustrations appearing in full colour for the first time. You can buy it here.

Dorothy Edwards: My Naughty Little Sister Treasury, illustrated by Shirley Hughes

Her work for My Naughty Little Sister brought Hughes great recognition as an illustrator, and she has gone one to illustrate over fifty books, winning major awards including the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her writing is also acclaimed; her most popular books, the Alfie series were both written and illustrated by her.

And Alfie is still going strong. People who were brought up with the Alfie books are now having their own children, and introducing them to the stories they loved. Sharing childhood books is a lovely way to bond with your child and teach them what your own childhood was like. Though a lot of people would argue that technology and modern life have irrevocably changed childhood, the essential pattern of a child’s day is still the same.Young readers can still relate to the cosy everyday moments that make up a childhood; going to the park, getting the bus, doing the shopping. And children still love the intimacy of being read to from a physical book. Hughes told The Telegraph last year, “I’m not anti-technology; it’s great for reading books on the Tube. But picture books can’t be replicated on a screen. Children need to hold them and look at them and feel them. If books are going to survive at all, it is children’s books that will be the last bastion.”

Shirley Hughes cushion

Hughes books are designed so that her illustrations are just as important as the text, and they offer something interesting for children who haven’t learned to read yet. She believes that children should be able to learn to read at their own pace, and insists there’s nothing wrong with enjoying books predominantly for the pictures. “My whole idea is to slow them down and get them to make a leisurely examination of a picture at their own pace”, she told The Telegraph last year. Like ourselves, she mourns the fact that some parents try to keep older children away from picture books once they have learned to read! Shirley Hughes’ ongoing popularity proves that there is still an appetite for these kinds of books. At age 90 she is still writing and illustrating as prolifically as ever, her latest book Ruby in the Ruins came out just a few weeks ago.

Ruby in the Ruins by Shirley Hughes

We were very excited when Ruby in the Ruins arrived in store last month, get your copy here!

Ruby in the Ruins is set in post war London, reflecting Hughes’ own childhood experiences of war. The author has said that although her own life experiences often seep into her work, it’s rarely a conscious decision. In the new book, Ruby awaits the return of her father after the end of the war. When he returns, she finds herself having difficulty getting used to him again, until one day she trips playing among the ruins and there’s only one person she wants to rescue her.

Shirley Hughes: Ruby in the Ruins

The illustrations in this book are nostalgic and evocative. It could have been written at any point in the last 50 years, Hughes’ work is as sure footed and recognisable as ever. The illustrations have some lovely subtle touches. In the scene where Ruby and her mother look out the window at the air raid floodlights, they are framed from the back so we can only guess at what their emotions might be from their body language. Ruby’s mother places a protective hand on her back and the pair hold the curtains open to peek at what’s going on. The scene is washed in blue, creating an atmosphere of fear. 

Shirley Hughes: Ruby in the Ruins

Let’s Join In

Another of our favourite Shirley Hughes books is Let’s Join In. This is a beautiful collection of stories for the very youngest readers, our customers love it as   a newborn or christening gift. The simple stories are based around verbs like “giving” and “chatting”, and help babies learn their first words from observing the world around them. The book's illustrations ooze Shirley Hughes’ trademark warmth, and wriggly, giggly babies! Babies love looking at pictures of other babies, so this is a lovely first bedtime stories collection to introduce little ones to the joy of being read to.

Shirley Hughes: Lets Join In

Shirley Hughes is one of those rare artists whose work has never lost its popularity, who manages to reach new audiences without alienating her old ones. We think her books will be popular for many generations to come.

Explore our full range of Shirley Hughes merchandise and books


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1 comment

  • Author image
    Allison Alexander: May 10, 2018

    Great article. I love Shirley Hughes’ illustrations. She captures children beautifully. As a child and even now i am hugely affected by illustrations.

    I loved books illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, Dagmar Wilson and Alice and Martin Provensen. Beautiful illustrators, but don’t know anything about them. They should be celebrated!

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