Shirley Hughes, the author and illustrator whose everyday stories of early childhood cast a happy glow across generations of family life, has died aged 94, her family has said.
Over a career that spanned 70 years, Hughes illustrated and wrote some 60 books, winning BookTrust’s inaugural lifetime achievement award in 2015, and being voted the most popular winner in the first 50 years of the Kate Greenaway medal for illustration for her picture book Dogger, which told the story of a little boy who is left distraught when his beloved toy dog turns up at a jumble sale.
“At the core of Shirley’s work is a child’s feeling, a child’s emotions. She spent her whole life taking this as seriously as many take adult feelings and emotions. This is part of what made her so special and so important,” said former children’s laureate Michael Rosen.
Philip Pullman called her “a rich and wide-ranging talent”. “She’s such a warm and benevolent presence in the lives of uncountable numbers of children, and the parents who loved her when they too were children, that it’s impossible to imagine how we ever did without her,” he added.
Hughes brought an unrivaled compassion and humor to the emotional lives of the smallest children, whether they were mourning the loss of a beloved toy, or delighting in a new pair of yellow wellies (albeit on the wrong feet). Sibling relationships are a recurrent theme, not least in her well-loved Alfie books, which began in 1981 with the story of four-year-old Alfie accidentally locking himself in his house after a shopping trip with his mum and his little sister. “Annie Rose was hungry as well as tired. She started to cry. Then Alfie began to cry too … he didn’t like being all by himself on the wrong side of the door.”
Hughes grew up in the Wirral, the youngest of three daughters born to bargain store magnate TJ Hughes, whose flagship shop towered above Liverpool’s London Road for 99 years until its closure in 2011. Her mother was a keen theatre-goer, who took full advantage of the city’s three playhouses, inspiring her daughter with such a love of stage design that she left the local grammar school at 16 to study costume at Liverpool School of Art. She went on to Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing, where a perceptive tutor suggested her real calling might be illustration. She always maintained that picture books were intrinsically theatrical.
She started out as an illustrator for the books of other authors, getting her first major break when she was asked to take on a new series called My Naughty Little Sister, by an as-yet unknown writer, Dorothy Edwards. Published in 1952, it quickly became a classic – thanks in part to Hughes’s skill at capturing the body language of a grumpy little girl. She had already been personally sought out by Noel Streatfeild to illustrate a new novel, The Bell Family.
By this time she had married the architect John Vulliamy and settled in a scruffy Notting Hill townhouse, with communal gardens at the back, where they would spend their married life. In 1960, as the mother of two small sons, she “plucked up the courage” to propose her own picture book, Lucy and Tom’s Day. Though her publishers feared it was “far too quintessentially English” to reach an international market, they went ahead, and were rewarded with her first solo series.
The idea that she couldn’t command overseas sales was dispatched once and for all by Dogger, which was translated into 13 languages after its publication in 1977. Most of her books – not least her four Tales of Trotter Street, written for older children in the late 80s and early 90s – were set in the multicultural world she saw around her west London home.
After her husband died in 2007, she turned to writing novels, publishing her first when she was 84. Both were set in the second world war – Hero on a Bicycle in occupied Florence, where she had spent time as a 19-year-old just after the war, and Whistling in the Dark, in Liverpool, which suffered a devastating blitz when she was the same age as the girl in the story.
Her career came full circle in 2015, when she teamed up with her illustrator daughter, Clara Vulliamy, as the writer on a series of chapter books about a daredevil dog Dixie O’Day and his sidekick Percy.
Pullman told the Guardian: “Shirley and the characters she’s drawn and written about are a great family of witnesses to the power of love and kindness. We could talk for hours – with a multitude of examples – of her mastery of the craft of illustration, of her close and unwavering observation of children as they’re busy with all the things that are so important to them, of her sheer technical genius .
“But the best tribute to her lifetime of production is the physical state of the books of hers on bedside tables, or crammed into bookshelves, or face-down on the floor under the bed: battered, bent, torn here and there, perhaps chewed a little, scribbled on – these books have been loved almost to destruction. She will last as long as there are children.”