Children's book club Q&A with Shirley Hughes


Shirley Hughes

We were delighted to welcome author and illustrator Shirley Hughes to answer a selection of your questions. You asked the creator of Alfie and Annie Rose about gender stereotypes, working mothers and whether protective parenting means that the children of today have fewer opportunities for adventure.

One of the best-loved writers and illustrators for children, Shirley has won the Kate Greenaway Medal twice and has been awarded the OBE for her distinguished service to children's literature. Her debut novel, Hero on a Bicycle, is a gripping adventure for children aged 10 and over, set in Nazi-occupied Florence in 1944.


Q. Clawdy: Does Hero on a Bicycle mark a move away from your much-loved stories for younger children, and will we see more books for the older age-groups?

A. Shirley Hughes: Hero on a Bicycle is my first novel (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

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, brilliantly 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 and hope 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.

Q. EssieW: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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.

Q. Shells: What contemporary children's illustrators do you admire?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 her 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 irony in the detail which is sometimes surreal. And finally, I admire my daughter Clara Vulliamy who radiates everything she does with warmth, humour and wonderful powers of observation.

Q. Goldenbird: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: Thanks!
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.

Q. Bryonywhisker: 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 fictitious?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 since the time when Mrs Cocoa Jones did her washing by hand and pegged it on the line, and mothers and children walked 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.

Q. Whyriskit: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 name. Perhaps your four-year-old would like to think of one? I can assure them that, although there are 15 Alfie and Annie Rose books already out there, I have just completed another, Alfie’s Christmas, out Autumn 2013.

Q. AppleAndBlackberry: 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!

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 and which I thought was a magical place, and 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.

Q. Neolara: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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.

Q. HappyTurquoise: 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)?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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.

Q. NorksAreMessy: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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.

Q. JollyJock: I would like to read and show my little one some of your stories but I have no idea which to buy first. Which books would you recommend for each different age group?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 more plot-based domestic dramas like the Alfie Books.

"If I can... get across the message that kindness and family feeling are terribly important, then that would be very encouraging indeed."

I have also written and illustrated picture books for older 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 sent 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 come 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 1920s, 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 told against a background of a neighbourhood divided by conflicting 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!


Q.Gazzalw: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 Crompton’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 suppertime. Perhaps one of the reasons for the huge popularity of fantasy fiction is because it offers just this freedom to children to get away from the grown-ups in their imagination and go off adventuring.

Q. Pendulum: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 being related to 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 by a friend. I will certainly take on board your suggestion that my next book might have a working mother. I am mulling over ideas already.

Q. CambridgeBlue: 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'?

A. Shirley Hughes: One of my perennial ‘comfort reads’ among children’s books is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows – a masterpiece which evokes the wonderful freedom of ranging the countryside and ‘messing about in boats,’ and the comfort of returning to a cosy fireside after the terrors of the Wild Wood. And, above all, it has 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 20th 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 grown-up 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 the 20th century, which I return to over and over again (you need to allow plenty of time!). Finally, I cannot possibly leave out Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby!

Q. Melmagpie: 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?

A. Shirley Hughes: 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, allowing the right space for the text and with colour added.
When I have written the text 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 come to do the finished artwork I redraw from the roughs, then put on the colour using gouache colour and save chalk. All the characterisation comes out of my imagination, but is 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.

Q. Debka: 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 with her Grandpa. My 3yo daughter and I love all your other books as well.

A. Shirley Hughes: 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 ongoing pleasure in itself.




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