Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy webchat

Author Shirley Hughes with her illustrator daughter Clara VulliamyAlfie author Shirley Hughes and her illustrator daughter Clara Vulliamy joined us for a webchat in September 2013.

They answered your questions on the Dixie O'Day series, which has seen them collaborate for the first time, and the processes involved in creating classics such as Dogger and Milly-Molly-Mandy.


Dixie O'Day and working together

Q. Willemdefoeismine: Clara and Shirley, have you long considered working together and what exactly was the catalyst for undertaking this fabulous joint venture?

A. Shirley Hughes: Thank you! When Dixie O'Day first popped up in my mind it was packed with cliff-hangers, wacky car racers, engine failure, level-crossing peril and a breakneck finish. It's packed with illustrations. We both agree that this is really important and appealing.

A. Clara Vulliamy: It was on the cards for years that we would collaborate; I guess the perfect project and the perfect moment converged. I am very lucky to be Mum's first illustrator - I hope I pass the audition! We had lots of laughs sitting at the kitchen table, dreaming up new stories for Dixie O'Day.

Q. AndSoWeBegin: I'd love to know how much involvement the publisher and your editor had in the final version of Dixie O'Day. How did your relationship work?

A. Shirley Hughes: It's terribly important to have a good publisher and we had a very good editor. She came up with all sorts of ideas that added to the first story. Of course you need to have a very good publicity team, which we have at Random House. Most important really is the design of the book. It's a two-colour book in black and red only, and Clara is the one who came up with that idea.

A. Clara Vulliamy: I worked very closely with our brilliant designer Ness Wood on the style of the book. The Fifties look was right up both of our streets and it was such fun bringing different snippets of fabrics and patterns to each meeting.

Q. Choccheesecake: I adore my mum but I can't imagine working with her. What was it like for you two?

A. Shirley Hughes: Clara and I are both in the business of dreaming up entertaining fictional characters and bringing them to life in our illustrations but our styles are very different. So when Dixie O'Day popped up in my imagination I just knew I would never be able to illustrate it, so I was lucky to know just the right person!

A. Clara Vulliamy: To be really honest I wasn't sure what it would be like! But it's been a joy from the start: many happy days spent sitting together, reading bits aloud, trying out new ideas, making each other laugh. I found Mum to be the ideal author to work with - non-interfering, supportive AND doesn't put things into the story she knows I would struggle to draw!

Dixie O'Day in the Fast Lane book jacketQ. louibie2013: Where did the inspiration for Dixie and Percy come from?

A. Shirley Hughes: Well Dixie and Percy are just a marvellous duo. They both have very different characters. Dixie is rather more adventurous, and Percy is more imaginative but tends to get a bit nervous. Clara created these wonderful car races and failures, and the breakneck finish. Some of the characters she has done completely differently to how I would imagine them. For instance, Dixie's heartless neighbour Lou-Ella, I had thought of as rather hatchet-faced, but Clara has made her very glamorous wearing her special motoring hat, making her rather more threatening.

Q. clare21: I'm really intrigued by the colour palate you used; how and why did you decide to go for red and black? The book is full of detail lifted straight from the 1950s, like Lou-Ella's sunglasses and the petrol pumps; me and my mum particularly loved all of this. Why did you choose that period to set the book in?

A. Clara Vulliamy: We loved setting the Dixie stories in this retro style - it's so dashing and glamorous! For production reasons we could only have one extra colour but this limitation turned out to be absolutely fantastic. Adding red and pink to the strong black line of the drawings has given its distinctive style. Car design seemed to come into its own in the 1950s. Fun fact for car geeks like me: Dixie's car is a 1961 Ford Zodiac convertible with a walnut dashboard.

Q. LynSharp: I wanted to ask about the fact that this book is for slightly older children than your normal picture books. Why did you decide to do this? What's different (and important) about writing and illustrating for this age group?

A. Shirley Hughes: With Dixie O'Day I was especially thinking about the emergent reader who enjoyed picture books but was moving into the challenge of longer text, and needs a lot of inspiration from illustrations to carry them along. A lot of exciting adventures, and pictures all over the place of course.

"Lots of young readers find a dense block of text a bit off-putting. In fact, I think I do too. It's much easier on the eye to break up the text with lots of detail action and visual jokes."

A. Clara Vulliamy: I have found illustrating for this slightly older age range a thrilling adventure in itself. We wanted the story to be lavishly illustrated on every page. Lots of young readers find a dense block of text a bit off-putting. In fact, I think I do too. It's much easier on the eye to break up the text with lots of detail action and visual jokes. It's more sympathetic too for those who are just starting out reading to themselves.

Q. FloraSunderfield: I was wondering what inspired the character names in Dixie O'Day? Why did you name your main character Dixie?

A. Shirley Hughes: I think that names are very important but I can't tell you where Dixie O'Day came from. He just came popping up in my imagination. I knew he had to have a sidekick and that was Percy. I didn't name them after anyone I knew.

A. Clara Vulliamy: I love the name Lou-Ella. Somebody pointed out that it sounded a little bit like Cruella as in de Vil - it hadn't occurred to us. Mum is brilliant at naming her characters, some of these names made me laugh out loud.

Q. penelope07: I think Dixie O'Day is perfect for first readers. How did you both work out the story and divide it up between you? Who would draw and who would write? Plus who is the inspiration for the female character Lou-Ella?

A. Shirley Hughes: I completely wrote the book on my own. Then when I finish the stories, and of course there will be many more, I give them to Clara and we look at them together. That's when she puts her hugely imaginative input in.

A. Clara Vulliamy: I think of Lou-Ella as Penelope Pitstop but if she'd gone to the Dark Side. She drives a pink E-Type Jag and has a ruthless desire to win at all costs. I adored Wacky Races when I was small and often practise my Muttley snigger.

Q. TannithJones: My little girl loves Lou-Ella and wants to dress like her all the time. Do you both have a favourite character from the new book? Or is that like asking a parent to pick their favourite child?

A. Shirley Hughes: Dixie's rather a portly figure. He's not exactly pompous, but he's more dignified - he thinks he is anyway! He wears a suit and a waistcoat and, of course, drives this very special car.

A. Clara Vulliamy: I have a soft spot for Percy. He is a nervy little chap, but a loyal pal to Dixie. In the next Dixie book, The Great Diamond Robbery, it is revealed that Percy is an expert ballroom dancer and has a secret penchant for celebrity magazines.

Shirley's writing

Q. SconeInSixtySeconds: Shirley, may I just say how much I love Dogger? I remember watching you talk about it on TV when I was quite young on that programme with Dick King Smith (was it Rub A Tub Dub?) and I have read it to ragged shreds to my own DC.

 The line "and then Bella did something very kind" never fails to reduce me to tears and I am old enough to know better.

 Thank you.

A. Shirley Hughes: Thank you. I'm so pleased and encouraged by your reaction to Dogger. I'm afraid I did go for the big emotional impact at the end.

Q. Merrylegs: Clara, did you have a Dogger when you were little? I really hope you did.

A. Clara Vulliamy: It's so much easier to give away something you only HALF love! The real Dogger was my brother's toy, and he really did have one ear squashed into an upright position from lots of hugging.

Q. gwenniebee: Shirley, to me your books seem wonderfully timeless, but I wonder if you feel the stories or their themes have changed over the years you have been writing?

"I think the lives of pre-school children change surprisingly little - the same dramas about your boots being on the right feet, or going to a party without your security blanket." 

A. Shirley Hughes: I think the lives of pre-school children change surpisingly little – the same dramas about your boots being on the right feet, or going to a party without your security blanket.

Of course, these are serious issues to a pre-school child and seeing a fictional child survive so triumphantly is very encouraging. Of course, Clara does this too in her books, Martha and the Bunny Brothers.

Q. Lynne73: I have loved reading Shirley's books to my two children; they have become firm favourites over the years, especially Dogger. Just like in the story, we lost a much-loved toy that was thankfully found in our local park after a frantic torch-lit search! Did this happen to one of Shirley's own children? Is this what inspired her to write Dogger?

A. Shirley Hughes: Dogger is a real toy. He's getting on a bit now and he's given up on the publicity circuit. He lives a quiet retirement in a special box in my house!

A. Clara Vulliamy:
I know that when Mum was small, in a reckless moment, she threw her beloved koala bear Oscar out of the car window; she said nothing for many miles. They turned back and searched, but alas he was gone forever.

Q. RedLentil: The question "Do you want to be an Alfie or a Bernard?" has got us through some tricky moments in this family. Thank you for being such an important part of some very happy years.

A. Clara Vulliamy: I always thought that Bernard would grow up into a bit of a looker - I bet he got the girl!

A. Shirley Hughes: Sometimes Bernard is the kind of kid that only a mother can love, frankly. But he is Alfie's best friend and Annie Rose thinks he's wonderfully funny!

Q. BadSeedsAddict:
We love Dogger, so much; I read my copy, from when I was tiny, to my children, and we like to find Dave's family and the children in fancy dress, in the bird's eye picture of the school fair. We love Bella and Dave. 

I love Helpers, too; the babies talking to each other, Sue with her toy hospital, and the best bit for me was always when the older children get the baby bathed and into her nightie. It looks just like my little sister used to .

A. Shirley Hughes: It's hugely rewarding to have created books that are reaching a second generation. I'm very glad you mentioned the drawing because of course so much of the characterisation is visual for the non-reader and is seen in the illustrations.

Q. BangOn: Shirley, your books were such a big part of my childhood, growing up in the 1980s, and now feature heavily in my own children's book collection. DD2 is crazy about Up and Up - she keeps asking when she'll be able to fly!
 Whereabouts in London are most of your books set? I've been trying to guess for many years now!

A. Clara Vulliamy: Mum's books have a huge nostalgic appeal to me and my brothers because they are so familiar, with a distinctly West London flavour, as that's where we grew up.

A. Shirley Hughes: I'm thrilled that your daughter liked Up and Up. It's a wordless story, a tremendous challenge and you put so much of your own imagination into it. Another Christmas story that I'm doing - Alfie's Christmas - is just about to be published. It's about an ordinary family celebrating Christmas. Alfie's house is in Hammersmith, but Holland Park and our local recreation ground also feature. It's definitely a West London-based story.

Q. noidles: Shirley, has the way you've worked with publishers changed dramatically over the years? Is it better or worse?

A. Shirley Hughes: I think it's absolutely great. I've had very good fortune with the editors and designers that we work with. The fact that some publishers used to be small, independent companies and now they've been bought by bigger firms doesn't matter. You're still working with the same experienced small team that you've been with all along.

Q. NigelMolesworth: No sensible, erudite question here I'm afraid, but just wanted to say that my daughters and I absolutely love the Alfie stories! The girls talk about Alfie and Annie Rosie as if they are friends who live next door. So thank you for wonderful stories!

A. Shirley Hughes: Thank you so much. I love to think that you're enjoying my books out there with your daughters!

Shirley's illustrations

Q. Pawprint: Shirley, you illustrated my mum's first book, around 1980. Can't say more without outing myself, but just wanted to say we all loved your amazing illustrations. Clue - it was about two witches called Gladys and Victoria.

A. Shirley Hughes: I can remember those witches vividly. Their appeal is perennial, although there are so many sci-fi competitors nowadays, but who's ever heard of a dalek called Gladys.

Q. RollerSkateKate: Shirley, are you planning any exhibitions soon?

A. Shirley Hughes: My illustrations are being put on show at the Illustration Cupboard Gallery just before Christmas this year. It's at 22 Bury Street in London.

Q. mignonette: The trifle stealing scene in My Naughty Little Sister where Bad Harry aids her in eating most of it up before the party starts is responsible for my lifelong aversion to trifle.

 Could you, would you, resurrect that naughty little sister with some further adventures? From a naughty big sister!

A. Shirley Hughes: The trifle eating scene is the most famous of these wonderful stories I think. Dorothy Edwards was my first big break as an illustrator and I love the way she creates a character. Unfortunately, I can't resurrect My Naughty Little Sister as the author has died, so I have to go on to my own stories. Although Annie Rose in the Alfie stories is certainly a bit of a challenge.

A. Clara Vulliamy: Hello naughty big sister! I LOVED the trifle stealing scene too, it was my favourite.

Clara's illustrations

Q. Bethanybunny: A question to Clara, from my daughter Bethany - I am five and I really liked reading Martha and the Bunny Brothers. The best bit was the bunny club. I've got Hop into Bedtime as well and I used to have it lots of times for my bedtime story. I want to ask how do you make all the books? Do you think of the story first and then draw the pictures?

"I make up stories by thinking of the pictures first. I see the story in my head, like a movie with no sound. Then I draw the pictures and write the words at the same time."

A. Clara Vulliamy: Hello Bethany! I am so happy that you like my stories - thank you. I make up stories by thinking of the pictures first. I see the story in my head, like a movie with no sound. Then I draw the pictures and write the words at the same time.

Q. mignonette: Have you thought of getting together with Janet and Allen Ahlberg's daughter Jessica for a kind of meta 'talented offspring of talented parents' collaboration?

A. Clara Vulliamy: What a marvellous idea! Allan and Jessica are a brilliantly talented duo to look up to. I can just imagine Dixie motoring into the pages of Goldilocks!

Q. waikikamookau: Are you intentionally being very different to your mum in your style? And are you expecting to be, and presumably are being, compared to her?

A. Clara Vulliamy: My early work looked a lot like Mum's - I didn't see it at the time but I do see it now. I've found my own voice and style over the years, so I'm not too anxious about any comparisons!

Q. Isabeller: Could you give an insight into how you create an illustration?

A. Clara Vulliamy: I begin with a pencil drawing, which I then scan and manipulate digitally to create that rich dark line. In the Dixie artwork the colours are added digitally too. We've had a lot of fun finding patterns and textures that enhance the drawing.


Q. MacaYoniandCheese: The Alfie books, Dogger and the beautifully illustrated My Naughty Little Sister books have always been my go-tos at the end of the frantic dinner-bath-bed hour in my house. Clara, your lovely Milly-Molly-Mandy illustrations have made my children into life-long fans. Shirley, I particularly appreciate your honest portrayal of mothers - I often think of Alfie's mum, who is always calm and level-headed in fraught situations, when I encounter my own parenting trouble spots.

A. Shirley Hughes: I never intended to make her some kind of a perfect mum, but she is a reassuring one I hope and she does manage to keep calm and carry on…most of the time at least!

A. Clara Vulliamy: Thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed the Milly-Molly-Mandy illustrations. I loved immersing myself in the period detail. The fact that it still speaks to a modern audience says a lot about the timeless universality of classic children's books.

Q. tethersend: Shirley, thanks for everything. I named DD2 after you.

A. Shirley Hughes: I am so touched to hear that. I don't know how old she is now but please give her my love.

Q. rholo: Do you think there's anything we can do to stop so many libraries being closed, given this is where parents and children may first come across some of your books?

"Libraries are not just for borrowing books, but a place you can go to sit in peace and quiet or to search for a job, revise for exams, the list is endless. We must keep the libraries."

A. Shirley Hughes: This is a huge issue we have all joined together on. Philip Pullman, myself and many other authors have pulled together to say "don't close our libraries!" It's a terribly damaging thing to do.

They're not just for borrowing books, but a place you can go to sit in peace and quiet or to search for a job, revise for exams, the list is endless. We must keep the libraries.


Last updated: 9 months ago