This morning I awoke to the sad news that Shirley Hughes the beloved author and illustrator had died. The children’s book community online has been united in sadness at the loss of this remarkable woman who has been at the heart of children’s books for so long. It was noticeable to me that alongside the feelings of loss, the admiration and respect shown for both Shirley Hughes the person and her numerous books, there was also an outpouring of love. For generations this kind and perceptive woman had comforted and reassured, entertained and amused readers and her personality permeates all her work ensuring that her kindness and understanding are conveyed to others.
There are others more qualified than I am to discuss the artistic techniques used by Shirley Hughes so I will not attempt to do so here. What I and many others do know however is how her books make us feel. It is that aspect which I think caused the many expressions of love shared this morning.
In 1977 her picture book Dogger, was published and has since that time become a valued part of family life for many. Awarded the Greenaway Medal at the time and forty years later, thanks to a public vote, becoming ‘the Greenaway of the Greenaways’ its place in picture book history was assured and deserved. Shirley Hughes had a gift for conveying the emotions of small children in their expressions and general demeanour that encourages young readers to empathise with the characters. In Dogger that gift is expressed in a small drama that in reality is an experience that would be a huge trauma for her youngest readers. It was her understanding of that which makes Dogger work so perfectly.
Her wonderful books capture those everyday moments that later become special memories. Sharing her stories is such a treasured part of many family lives. As a young and bewildered new mum Shirley Hughes’ picture books acted as a guide for me. They are full of love, kindness, humour and wisdom just like the remarkable women herself. Sharing her lovely books with two little boys was a whole lot more effective than any self-help manual in reassuring me and helping to keep things in perspective.
Thanks to her book Lucy and Tom’s Christmas Shirley Hughes has become synonymous with Christmas for me and I suspect for others too. Any re-reading is full of happy memories, of family and special times. I have a video recording (yes, that long ago!) of me reading this book to my elder son on Christmas Eve as he sits in bed with his stocking beside him replicating the illustration of Tom.
Fast forward many years and as a school librarian after a happy school visit by Shirley’s daughter, Clara Vulliamy I was lucky enough to attend an evening marking the publication of the mother and daughter collaboration of Dixie O’Day in the Fast Lane. Clara kindly introduced me to her mother and I had to fight the urge to curtesy to this ‘Queen of Children’s Picture Books’! She chatted, smiled and twinkled and was even lovelier than I imagined. A couple of years later attending an event for Clara Vulliamy and Polly Faber I looked up to see Shirley Hughes coming through the door resplendent in a large brimmed purple hat and smiling at everyone with that now familiar twinkle. Yet again she was patient with questions, kind to every awestruck children’s book lover who spoke to her. She sat and observed and showed interest in everyone and it is perhaps that observation and concern for others that threads through all her books. I am so very glad that I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to say thank you.
Clara Vulliamy shared a beautiful tribute to her cherished Mum this morning saying:
“Shirley Hughes, 1927 – 2022, who showed us that love is kind, brave and loyal, and that the beauty in this world is in the big picture and in the detail. This isn’t goodbye, Mum will shine brightly forever.”Clara Vulliamy
Rest in peace dear Shirley Hughes and a heartfelt thank you for the stories, the illustrations and most of all for the shared love.