Surely Shirley


Picture books, with their simple aim to please the most visually receptive audience there is – the very young – survive in an era of stridently overwhelming imagery. Shirley Hughes

I’ve spent the last few months working on a tribute to Dorothy Butler for the IBBY Congress. In the excellent Babies Need Books, Butler says: ‘Shirley Hughes draws children’s outsides in a way which leaves no doubt about her knowledge of their insides.’ (p138.) Here’s an illustration from Babies Need Books itself which demonstrates her point.

Black and white drawing of a baby looking at a book and laughing
When I was One

Long before I saw this book, though, I had Hughes’ illustrations in my bones from my childhood reading.

Hughes wrote in her 2002 memoir A Life Drawing : recollections of an illustrator:

I never wanted to be a painter, always an illustrator. I am often mildly surprised when asked why I didn’t aspire to ‘real’ art. Illustrating is a very different endeavour from painting, though just as exacting. Painters concentrate on communicating through just single one image which says everything about a particular moment in time, or an existential experience. But an illustrator is committed to producing a whole series of connected images which relate strongly from one to another. They must pack in a lot of clear visual information and descriptive characterisation if they are to hold the narrative, but carry it with a lightness of touch, a distinctive style.

Her versatility is apparent in just one cover:

Cover of a children's book with drawings of the diverse characters
Hughes’s versatility and vibrancy on show

There was a wonderful breakthrough when Noel Streatfield, then the doyenne of children’s authors, saw one of my illustrations in an anthology and asked Collins to commission me to illustrate her next book, The Bell Family. This was based on a radio serial performed on BBC Children’s Hour, about a vicar’s family living in a poor London parish. There was a lot of cheerful make-do-and-mend and a triumph of family affection. The characterisation and dialogue were excellent.

Here’s an illustration from Streatfield’s The Painted Garden, which I first read when I was about 12. Streatfield specialised in family dynamics and, in particular, the intricate and sometimes baffling interplay of personality between sisters. Maybe that was the appeal for me, dealing with two infuriatingly mysterious ones myself.

A black and white drawing of a girl on the telephone
Rachel hears bad news


In this novel, Rachel is the talented beautiful elder sister, a dancer waiting to fulfil her unlimited potential. Jane is the younger – difficult, quarrelsome and not particularly good at anything except loving dogs and vociferously kicking against her helplessness at every opportunity. Tim is their musically-precocious younger brother. All three of them have their lives altered by a year’s displacement, from London to Los Angeles.

A black and white drawing of a child in clothes typical of the Edwardian period
Jane dressed as Mary for the film The Secret Garden

Hughes added the extra dimension to my reading of this story and put her pen firmly on what it was to be at home, and a stranger, all at once.

It’s in picture books that Hughes’ understanding and abilities came into full flower.

 Children minutely examine and absorb the images in their books and return to them over and over again. As an illustrator this is a huge responsibility. You are aiming not only to enhance the book as a beautiful object, worth hanging onto. You are adding another emotional dimension, combining with the text to amplify the imaginative response the author seeks to elicit from the reader. The height of your ambition is to give your author, reader and publisher not only what they want exactly but what they never dreamed they could have.


Cover of a children's picture book showing a procession of people carrying furniture and boxes
‘…a small girl’s loneliness after the family moves house is resolved in the only possible way when she finally, triumphantly, makes friends.’ Dorothy Butler

In Moving Molly, the telling gesture is expressed in Molly’s taking leave of the empty house she’s always known. The attentive reader sees this small girl’s feelings, in the small gesture of examining a tear in the wallpaper, and leaving her mark.

Alfie is much too busy to examine wallpaper.

Colour cover of a children's picture book for small children
An intrepid three-year-old’s journey from triumph to hero.

We are, amongst other things, trying to entice children (and adults) to make their own leisurely exploration of a picture. Even to perceive the difference between a photograph and a painting. It is no good simply cramming the frame with detailed information, all of which is given equal emphasis. A picture book is a drama. We aim to lead the eye to the bit of the stage where the main action is taking place, to highlight a telling gesture, a touching facial expression or an important detail tucked away somewhere which is a vital clue to the plot. And, more importantly, to invite the reader to inhabit that interface between word and image, the space you are always trying to leave for their imagination.

This small drama is exactly the same size as its intended reader. Only another three-year-old knows how quickly triumph (running faster than Mum and the stroller) can lead to a gesture of bravado (slamming the front door) – bringing you back down to your real size and status. Or does it.  Hughes mutely and perfectly shows how Alfie solves the problem he himself created, despite the hectic and desperate actions of the adults around him. Nobody is blamed or shamed in this process, and the beauty of the book for the parent reader lies in its affirmation that life is made of these small moments.