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Q&A with author and illustrator Shirley Hughes - ANSWERS BACK

(92 Posts)
RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 22-Nov-12 08:12:08

We're delighted that Shirley Hughes is joining us to answer your questions. Shirley needs little introduction to mumsnetters who have enjoyed her books both as children and with their own children.

Shirley has illustrated more than 200 children's books and is one of the best-loved writers for children. She has won the Kate Greenaway Medal twice and has been awarded the OBE for her distinguished service to children's literature. In 2007, Dogger was voted the UK's favourite Kate Greenaway Medal-winning book of all time.

This year Shirley has turned her hand from picture books to fiction. Her debut novel, Hero on a Bicycle is based in Italy in 1944 and weaves a truly thrilling tale of daring and adventure: Florence is occupied by Nazi German forces. The Italian resistance movement has not given up hope, though - and neither have Paolo and his sister, Constanza. Both are desperate to fight the occupation, but what can two siblings do against a whole army with only a bicycle to help them?

Send your questions to Shirley before the end of 30 November and we'll link to her answers on 13 December. Shirley will be answering up to 20 questions and anyone who gets their question answered will win a copy of Hero on a Bicycle

See for for more information about the books, featuring videos, illustrations from Shirley's sketchbooks and maps.

HappyAsEyeAm Mon 26-Nov-12 13:59:11

Shirley, I have tears in my eyes writing this post to you. I grew up on My Naughty Little Sister, and my 4yo DS truly adores the Alfie books and Dogger. I am just delighted by this, as the illustrations, vocabulary, messages and sentiments are just what I like him to be digesting. For him to love them as much as I do is very special to me.

My question: Some of your books (I am thinking especially of Lucy and Tom's Christmas) are now out of print. I have bought a second hand copy to be able to read it with my DS. Are there any plans to re-print your out of print books please?

RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 03-Dec-12 14:07:29

The Q&A is now closed and we have sent the questions over to Shirley to answer. We'll be posting up her answers on this thread early next week.

RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 10-Dec-12 17:10:07

Shirley's answers are now back and we're going to post them up on this board (new style Q&A - more about this later). If your question has been answered, you have won a copy of her latest novel Hero on a Bicycle and we'll be in touch via pm to get your details. Thanks to everyone who sent in questions and comments to Shirley which were all passed on and huge thanks to Shirley for joining us and answering the questions.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:13:49


I am looking forward to reading Hero on a Bicycle,as the Year 6 children in my booster group each year are always gripped and moved by The Lion and the Unicorn. Does this mark a move away from your much-loved stories for younger children,and will we see more books for the older age-groups?

Hero on a Bicycle is my first noel (better late than never!) and I am very encouraged by the reception it has had. World War II, which I vividly remember, is a grippingly exciting background for a story. I first visited Florence when I was nineteen, not long after the end of the war, where I met an Italian family who during the nazi occupation had been persuaded by the partisans (the anti-nazi freedom fighters who were operating clandestinely in the hills around the city) to hide escaping allied prisoners of war in their cellar. It was a highly dangerous undertaking; if you were caught by the Gestapo you were shot. But I did not want this to be a story of clearly defined ‘goodies and baddies.’ The partisans, though tremendously brave, were fairly ruthless in perusing their ends, and Helmut, the young German officer who is serving in Hitler’s occupying army, is not a jack-booted Nazi but a very sympathetic character.
Hero On a Bicycle is the first story I have ever written which I have not fully illustrated myself (though it has chapter headings), but my publishers, Walker Books, have helped me to create a connected website where young readers can access a whole background to the story, including World War II weaponry, uniforms etc, brilliant researched by Jack Owen, as well as my own fashion drawings of the era, hit songs sung in Italian, French and German, and clips from a contemporary Pathe newsreel which shows the actual street fighting during the liberation of Florence.
I am thrilled with the result, that it might inspire young readers to take off on some research of their own into that very important period of World War II history. I am writing another novel for this age group.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:17:03


I love Shirley's books! My favourite childhood book was Sally's Secret. A book I have now passed on to my daughter. My son is an Alfie fan - especially as his sister looks a little like Annie Rose.

Question: your illustrations observe so many little details of human life and the people seem very true to life (all shapes and sizes) and seem to move on the page. How did you learn to draw people and where do you get the inspiration for all the details in your work?

I did a lot of drawing when I was an art student and have kept sketchbooks all my working life. You get an eye for real people, especially children, the way they move, or stand when they are slightly unsure of themselves and so on, and if you draw them it feeds your visual memory. Then you can go back to your drawing board and create imaginary characters. Background details (especially clutter!) are important if you are describing a domestic drama.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:17:37


Always loved Shirley Hughes. I particularly love the 1970s/80s stories where the girls are in dungarees and mary jane shoes a lot of the time.
My question is 'what contemporary children's illustrators do you admire'?

I greatly admire Chris Riddell, who is a highly entertaining illustrator as well as a political cartoonist and a writer. Also Charlotte Voake, who disguises a superb skill with a relaxed line and a wonderful sense of humour. Anthony Browne’s highly accomplished style constantly stimulates us to look and look again, to catch the irong in the detail with is sometimes surreal. And finally, I admire my daughter Clara Vulliamy who radiates everything she does with warmth, humour and wonderful powers of observation.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:18:22


Thank you, Shirley, for your brilliant stories and characters. We love them all, especially Alfie and Annie Rose. They celebrate real, earthy childhoods and they are among the few books that we don't get bored of reading aloud. My son often pretends to be Mr Lewis Burrows! Thank you also for your sensitive portrayal of sibling relationships, which have steered a helpful course for us on several occasions.

One thing I really appreciate about your books is that gender differences don't seem as extreme as they are in the playground now. Girls aren't just pink and princessy (I love the girl with a tractor top bouncing on cushions) and boys are often caring and thoughtful. Do you think this is something which has changed since you started writing, or did you make a point of steering clear of stereotypes in your work?


Avoiding gender stereotypes is, of course, essential for any author or illustrator aiming to characterise real children. Being out there (preferably with a sketchbook), observing the way they interact in any park or play area gives you a huge range of temperaments to choose from.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:20:53


Shirley, we adore your work. Currently at bedtime we are admiring your illustrations in My Naughty Little Sister stories.
My question is - I think I look quite a bit like Alfie and Annie Rose's mum. Are the family illustrations a true likeness of people you know or are they ficticious?

I am delighted that you have been enjoying sharing my work with your children/ The late Dorothy Edwards, who wrote the My Naughty Little Sister stories was a wonderful storyteller, and happily my first big professional breakthrough was being commissioned to illustrate them. They have triumphantly survived sine the time when Mrs Cocoa Jones did her washing by hand and pegged it on the line, and mothers and children waked everywhere instead of getting into the car. And, of course, Bad Harry has a very special place in children’s literature as the all-time tearaway with a deceptively angelic appearance.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:21:47


Like so many others I just want to say thank you! I have passed my 30 year old copies of Up, Dogger (at which I still cry) and the Alfie books to my sons.
My question: Do the little girl and her baby brother from Bathwater's Hot have names?
My four year old also wanted to know if there were ever going to be more Alfie books?

The little girl’s baby brother in Bathwater’s Hot is called Olly. There is one about them both which is called Olly and Me. The heroine, the ‘I’ of the narrative, has no anme. Perhaps your four year old would like to think of one? I can assure that, although there are fifteen Alfie and Annie Rose books already out there, I have just completed another, Alfie’s Christmas, out Autumn 2013.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:23:30


I absolutely love your books, I think I have about twenty from my own childhood and I read them daily to my own DDs. I would love to know where some of the books are set, i.e. did you have a city/park in mind for Lucy and Tom or Alfie and Annie Rose or "When We Went to the Park"? Thanks!

I am thrilled you enjoy sharing me books with your children. The park I visualise in my mind as a setting for my stories is an amalgam of the one I went to as a child in West Kirby, which had a small boating lake, ducks and swings etc, which I thought was a magical place, and later Holland Park, Kensington, where I took my own children. The statue of Lord Holland, seated grandly on his plinth, which features in The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Story Book, is still there, but he is now surrounded by water.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:25:54


I also want to say thank you for giving my kids and me such pleasure over the years. My kids read your stories and recognise themselves and their lives - that's a very rare thing in a book for pre-schoolers.

I wondered of all the books you have written and / or illustrated, which one was your favourite and why? And are there any that you look at with the benefit of hindsight and wish you had done differently?

If I had a favourite among my own books it might be Dogger, because I have had such a warm reaction to this story over the years from people who have experienced the loss of a much loved toy. If I had the chance to do any of my books again I don’t think I would do them differently, but that does not mean that I don’t feel critical of them. You just put them out there and hope that you have learned a lot in the making of each of them.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:28:25


My question for Shirley is, what advice would you like to pass on to children who can draw and write well, and who would like to become writers and illustrators (but lack confidence a bit)?

Dear Shirley Hughes, I have to pinch myself to believe you will be reading this! I would like to thank you, firstly on behalf of my Mum, who was a (special needs) teacher between 1950s - late 1990s and your books were some of the 'real books' on her shelves both at home and in her narrow, high, classroom. When I think of it, with the rows of pegs hung with satchels by her door, and the crate of milk bottles, it is as if it is drawn by you! Your books take me back there. Your drawings have helped many, many children (some with no books at home, and nobody at home who could read) to fall in love with books, and want to learn to read. It didn't come as easily for some of us, and your illustrations worked as a great incentive.
Thank you from me. That frustration of loving the pictures of My Naughty Little Sister books, but not being able to read them spurred me on! Thanks partly to your illustrations, Mum felt she could break away from the conventions of keeping a tidy, orderly house and allowed us to use pots and pans for instruments, dens under the dining room table, messy craft activities and we learned to 'make do and mend' in play with as much imagination as we could muster. (However my big sister has still not completely forgiven me for being her own naughty little sister!) It wasn't until I studied the history (and practice) of children's book illustration at uni that I realised how revolutionary your books were, and appreciated the incredible hard work you have put in, over the years.
Thanks also from my daughters, who have enjoyed a similar messy upbringing, and the youngest (12) who loves to draw and wants to write and illustrate and loves your work, from two Shoes, New Shoes, to her beautiful illustrated London book.

Thank you!

The most important thing is to just keep drawing or writing and try never to be out off if the results don’t turn out as well as you had hoped. We all make a mess of things sometimes. You learn the skill by endlessly practising and trying out new ideas. Keep your pencil sharp, if you use one, let the line flow, and if you are using water colour paints keep your palette clean so that the colours don’t get muddy. Writing requires a very different kind of observation. You need to be a people watcher. And remember that good writers are nearly always also avid readers, who love storytelling and drama.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:29:36


Shirley Hughes, now THAT is a proper person to have on MN,
I am overwhelmed with admiration.
As for many others Shirley Hughes books formed the background to my own childhood and I was delighted to pass them on to my own children. Dogger is the children's favourite book, and Bella's KIND THING is a watchword in our family. I had a naughty little sister as a child and enjoyed that you told stories from the viewpoint of the big sister (me!)
My favorite is the less-known 'LIon and the Unicorn' which has me in tears from the start. I adore it and thank you for it.

Now the question...

*Shirley, your stories have such a strong moral sense. Do you see helping children to behave well as part of your 'job' or is it an accidental part of who you are?*

I am very glad that you feel my stories have a strong moral sense, though I hope never in a preachy way. My main job is to entertain, to give small children a first introduction to the joy of books long before they can read to themselves. But if I can also get across the message that kindness and family feeling are terribly important, then that would be very encouraging indeed.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:34:28


I'm 26 and can remember vividly the Alfie and Annie Rose books, but we didn't have any other of your books.

Now I've got my own little one I would like to read and show him some of your stories but I have no idea which to buy first. Which books would you recommend for each different age group?

I think Bathwater’s Hot and the rest of that series, might be the first starting point for very young children because they depict basic concepts even a two year old can understand. Then on to move plot based domestic dramas like the Alfie Books. I have also written and illustrated picture books for odler children, because I cannot see why they should have the pleasure of enjoying pictures sternly removed from them as soon as they have learned to read. The Lion and the Unicorn, for example, is about a London boy who is evacuated from the blitz during World War II and send to a big house in the country where he is miserably homesick. So it is about two kinds of courage; the lion kind we all need in the face of danger, and the unicorn kind of finding the strength to stick things out until the good times comes again. Stories by Firelight is full of emotional nuances which children can readily pick up through the artwork as well as the words – myth and magic mixed with some very real contemporary situations. And Ella’s Big Chance, a retelling of the Cinderella story set in the 1920’s, contains a whole range of ball dresses which might inspire any young would-be dress designer. The Christmas Eve Ghost is a picture book about a poor welsh washerwoman and her two children living in 1920’s Liverpool. It’s tols against a background of a neighbourhood divided by Protestant and Catholic convictions which are triumphantly resolved. And it also gives a visual insight into the gruelling drudgery of washing day before the invention of washing machines!

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:37:46


Dear Shirley

I think DW and I are slightly the wrong age to have read your books when we were children, but we have read many of them to our DCs and have really loved the "way it was" factor of the stories: for us your stories represent a time to nostalgically look back upon our own childhoods with a sense of wonderment at the amount of freedom we had and adventures we experienced in day-to-day life.

If you look at a lot of things that happen to the children in your stories, in all innocence, such as the Moving Molly story where she gets a lift with the removal men, their exciting adventures (contrary to health and safety and child protection laws) would probably be frowned upon today by most parents. Do you think that 21st Century children are missing out on some very important and exciting adventures in childhood because of over-protective parenting?

Thank you!

It’s an interesting question. As a writer of stories for youngish children you are very circumscribed these days as to the possible risks they might be taking in their fictional adventures. Looking back at all the stories I loved as a child, Richard Cromptom’s ‘Just William’ books, for instance, or E Nesbit’s The Railway Children, you envy the freedom with which the characters in them ranged the countryside unaccompanied by grown-ups, who never seemed to worry what they were doing as long as they were back by supper times. Perhaps one of the reasons for the huge popularity of fantasy fiction is because if offers just this freedom to children to get away from the grown ups in their imagination and go off adventuring.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:41:23


Hello Shirley, I have loved reading your books with my two DDs. Their favourite is possibly the story when Alfie sleeps in a tent with his father and a pig tries to join them in the middle of the night (silly old pig). They laugh like drains at that!

My question is based on a wistful remark my older daughter once made about Alfie's mum not going out to work (like I do). To be honest, I have always felt a little inadequate compared to Jessica Mary, who is a constant presence in Alfie and Annie Rose's worlds! I can't think of any mothers in your stories who do spend time at an outside workplace and I wonder if you considered developing such a character?


You have hit a really important point here. The only picture book I seem to have managed so far which depicts children who have a working mother is Helpers, in which a teenage boy is in charge. But it’s a situation I am familiar with in my own family, as I have a daughter-in-law with two children who has always held down a very demanding full time job, not to mention two other self-employed working mothers. Working from home is not without its attendant guilt and hazards, as I well know (such as somebody putting their head round the door when you are deep in concentration to say “When were you thinking of having lunch?”). Lily, my main character in Don’t Want to Go! Makes like very difficult for her Dad, when Mum is stricken by ‘flu, by sabotaging his efforts to get her to spend the day being looked after my a friend. I will certainly take on board your suggestion that my nest book might have a working mother. I am mulling over ideas already?

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:42:06


I was so excited when I saw this!

Hi Shirley, I am a massive fan of your books - I loved them as a child and my daughter has grown up on them especially Alfie, Dogger and My Naughty Little Sister (I know you didn't write those but your illustrations are the perfect complement to Dorothy Edwards' lovely stories). I've also just bought Lucy & Tom's Christmas following recommendations on here (had to get a second hand one as it's out of print) and am looking forward to sharing that with DD this year (even though she's 10 she still loves your books!)

The detail in your books is what makes them so special - in the writing and in the drawings (and the fact that I am a real life Jessica Mary - my DD couldn't believe it when we read that!)

My question is: Your books are in our 'comfort reading' top 5 ie: books that DD reads/I read to her when she is ill/upset/can't sleep. I've got similar books that I always turn to and I wondered if you do this too and if so, what are your 'comfort reads'?

Thanks and lovely to 'see' you on here smile

One of my perennial ‘comfort reads’ among children’s books in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows – a masterpiece which evokes the wonderful freedom of ranging the countryside, of ‘messing about in boats,’ the comfort of returning to a cosy fireside after the terrors of the Wold Wood. And, above all, one of great comic characters of children’s fiction, Mr Toad.
I was fortunate in never being required to read the novels of Charles Dickens as a child, but now in adulthood I read and re-read them with enormous pleasure, especially Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald are two twentieth century novelists with an impeccable and wonderfully readable style. Evelyn Waugh’s early novels A Handful of Dust and Vile Bodies, borrowed from the public library, were my first excursions into sophisticated adult literature as a teenager, and I simply could not believe my luck that grownup books could be funny and readable. One of the great pleasures of my later years has been reading Anthony Powell’s saga A Dance to The Music of Time, a collection of novels with a huge cast of characters. In my view it is one of the great literary achievements of twentieth century, which I return to over and over again (you need to allow plenty of time!). Finally, I cannot possibly leave out Scott Fitzergrald’s The Great Gatsby!

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:42:47


Hello! We also adore your books in our house - they are so beautifully observed and are captivating for adults and children alike. What is especially appealing is how down to earth they are and how they focus on the small but important things in family life. You are our favourite!

I could ask you lots of questions but here is one:

Your drawings are full of life and look very spontaneous - like they are an extension of you and you don't have to try hard - your drawing looks as natural and fluent as joined up handwriting. Can you tell us how long it takes for you to make an illustration for a spread and the process you go through and what materials you use? (I am a budding illustrator so interested in your technique!) Also, how much do you exercise your drawing muscle with observational drawing and how much are you able to produce images just from your imagination?

I am very pleased that you feel my illustrations have life and spontaneity. The aim is to make all finished artwork look as though it flowed effortlessly onto the page, though that is not always easy to achieve. I think one of the greatest tests of professionalism is to recreate the freedom of the first roughs into the finished artwork, all allowing the right space for the text and with colour added.
When I have written the test for one of my own books I work it out in 32 pages, that is 16 spreads including the prelims and title page. Colour printing is very expensive and more pages would probably be rejected. When I came to do the finished artwork I redraw form the roughs, then put on the colour using gouache colour and save chalk. All the characterisation comes out of my imagination, but made convincing by a lot of work in sketchbooks studying the real thing.

Illustrating another author’s work is a different process, closer to acting and theatre design. You have to use that person’s text as a springboard, be absolutely true to it, but give it a visual dimension.

ShirleyHughes Mon 10-Dec-12 17:44:12


Wow!!! Shirley Hughes!!!

My 21 month old daughter doesn't have a comfort blanket or stuffed toy- instead she has MY old copy (from when I was a child) of When We Went To The Park. She calls it 'Park' (she is only 21 months after all), and will spend long and happy car journeys poring over the pages. No other book will do. She also fully identifies with the lovely little girl having the walk wih her Grandpa. My 3yo daughter and I love all your other books as well.

One question- I have an elderly copy of Alfie Gets In First and one thing that always strikes me is the lack of cars on the road. It reminds me of when I was a child. My question is, would you illustrate that story in the same way now? Or would your illustration echo modern life?

Thank you for your wonderful wonderful books which have formed such a colourful and beloved backdrop to my childhood and that of my children. thanks

I am very touched to hear that your little daughter is already relating to a book in such a marvellous way at such a tender age. If she can do that; turn the page, identify with an imaginary person in a picture and relate it to her own life experience, she is well away into a lifetime of not only relishing stories but learning how to LOOK – to enjoy pictures not just as an adjunct of learning to read, but as an on-going pleasure in itself.

debka Mon 10-Dec-12 19:47:12

Shirley Hughes spoke to ME!!! I have tears in my eyes1 (great sop that I am).


NorksAreTinselly Mon 10-Dec-12 22:50:02

And mesmile
I am stupidly delighted by this thread.

Thank you so very much MN for arranging this and another HUHE thank you to SH for answering questions nd for continued JOY


NorksAreTinselly Mon 10-Dec-12 22:51:48

Ooh, ooh, ooh
Have just retread OP and realized that we have also won the new SH novel.

Am faint with JOY

gazzalw Tue 11-Dec-12 06:56:31

Wow what an amazing woman! Thank you so much for answering our question and all the others too. We have been quite sad that our DCs are too old really for the picture books (although DD will be reading Angel Mae at Christmas as is the annual tradition!) so delighted to have the opportunity to read an older children's work of fiction written by you grin

EssieW Tue 11-Dec-12 07:19:19

Thank you for all the answers - fascinating to get a look behind the scenes as it were. I am stupidly excited about Alfie's Christmas even if it's not out until 2013!

mercibucket Tue 11-Dec-12 09:02:36

Thank you, it was really interesting. We love that park in West Kirby.

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