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.


















Mice and Hedgehogs and Rabbits, oh my


It’s been 150 years since Beatrix Potter was born.

State Library Victoria’s Juliet O’Conor has published this tribute, with a tantalising glimpse inside some treasures in the Library’s collection. Last year, an exhibition called Inspiration by Design at SLV featured original illustrations by Potter from the V&A’s collection. (I’ve written about the Crane illustrations from that exhibition in a previous blog post.)

Here’s the extent of my Potter collection – the remaining titles from a boxed set I bought on my one and only trip to London in 1984. That’s them, squeezing the Golden Books.

A white bookshelf with mostly children's books, spine out
Potters at bottom left

Their number has been reduced (from the original 23 in the box) to the titles that were my and my children’s favourites. My pre-parenting favourites were The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle. Here’s that prickly laundress facing an ironing challenge.

A china figurine of a hedgehog in an apron holding an iron.
Mrs Tiggywinkle has her iron at the ready.

The idea that a hedgehog did the other animals’ laundry and mending directly references the huge domestic workforce that fuelled Victorian society.  The steamy claustrophobic kitchen where Mrs Tiggywinkle dips, rinses and presses, all the while gossiping about how her customers soiled their clothes, fascinates both Lucie and the reader. The attention to detail in Potter’s work has been commented on by critic Janet Adam Smith:  ‘The sage that Jemima Puddleduck nibbles to make her own stuffing, the crab-apples and green fir-cones with which Nutkin plays nine-pins, suggest the strawberries and columbines of Tudor and Stuart embroideries.’

My friend Anne’s family obviously loved her work too.

Children's books on a shelf, spines out
Potters with pottery pig

My children’s favourite books were Jeremy Fisher, Miss Moppet and the Fierce Bad Rabbit. I followed Dorothy Butler’s advice : ‘Don’t risk overlooking their capacity to captivate and the opportunity they offer to familarise the small child’s ear with precise, Victorian parlour language…As an antidote to the banalities of television utterance, Beatirx Potter’s easily available little books should not go unused.’ (p85, Babies Need Books) Sorry, DB – the kids were also the perfect age to enjoy the BBC’s charming adaptations of the stories in the mid 1990s.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a friend’s copy of a beautiful rare edition.


Small cover of children's book with coloured picture of a rabbit.
Closed view of The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit special foldout edition.
Book covers with concertina pages spread out
Unfolded pages of The Fierce Bad Rabbit – concertina edition: read as it unfolds.


Back to Peter Rabbit to finish with. After publisher Frederick Warne’s initial rejection, Potter privately printed and distributed the book – comfort and inspiration for this aspiring picture book writer.When Warne reconsidered, they politely but firmly rejected the “improved” text suggested by Potter’s family friend Canon Rawnsley, which read in part: They sat down to tea / Too good-mannered to cram / and ate bread and milk / and sweet blackberry jam. 

Happy birthday, Beatrix.

The one that started it all (maybe)

photo (4)

This book is number 1

because it’s the book that showed me, as a five-year-old and beyond, how a picture book really works.

The simple device of showing little Cottontail and grownup Cottontail in the same powder blue dress help to move the reader through space and time. The defiance shown in the illustration above adds volumes to her retort in the text. There were so many details to pore over  – the gilded room heaped with Easter eggs and the intricacies of the housekeeping while Cottontail was away, all in the muted apricots, lemons and browns that made their own confection. No sugary aftertaste though, despite the wise old rabbit giving her magical shoes so that she can give an egg to the boy who most deserved it. I remember skipping or hopping over that bit so that I could get back with her to the dear little house and count her children as well.

It’s in a much-loved state – the corners are rubbed and the Western Australian silverfish have eaten off the spine. But the pages are still bright, and she is still refusing to eat that carrot.

The current climate of re-packaging has not passed her by. Here’s a recent reprint.

Cover of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
The Country Bunny upsized

My idol, Dorothy Butler, calls it ‘An old book…of singular if inexplicable appeal to the young’ and recommends it for five-year-olds. Babies Need Books gets it right again.