Shirley Hughes

I’ve written before, too often now, about grieving the deaths of authors and illustrators. And I hope no one takes the lack of a full post on any one death to mean I don’t care! When Ashley Bryan died so recently it was deeply saddening. (Please read the Publishers Weekly and New York Times obituaries– more importantly, however, please read his books.) I cried, and in the library where I now work I told the students a bit about him and read them some of the proverbs he collected. The kindergarten class did their own illustrations for some of them. I think he would have liked that.

When I heard Shirley Hughes had died, I couldn’t quite get there. Maybe it’s that it was too soon after Ashley Bryan — when Eric Carle and Lois Ehlert died so close together, I know that my mind was just too numb to handle them otherwise than in tandem. But I think this was just different.

I love Ashley Bryan and he did teach me a lot: his collected stories and songs are wonderful and his art is hanging by my front door, right beside Ezra Jack Keats, to welcome people with colourful joy. He speaks profoundly to my story-loving and storytelling mind.

Shirley Hughes taught me to be a child and, later, to understand accepting and raising my child as she is.

Every parent knows that when your kid turns about 3 or 4, everything goes in a new direction, except for your child, who’s going in several directions, usually not anywhere close to any direction you want. Possibly sprinting ahead of you through the door and locking themselves inside. Or they’ve put on their new boots and gone splashing in puddles while you’re with the littler one and it’s only later, taking off the boots, that you realize their boots were on the wrong feet the whole time. Or it’s your kid’s first time at a birthday party alone, without parents, and they’re nervous and decide to bring a special blanket or toy.

All of these are stories that aren’t really stories, as such, are they? They’re incidents in life, but each is a book by Shirley Hughes. And they’re only Shirley Hughes books because she decides where to start writing and where to end. They have more words, usually, than a regular picture book today, and yet I’ve never had a child get bored or wander off. They’re riveting, the way that when you’re putting a child to bed at age 3 or 4 and they want you to tell them the story of the day, they will listen to every bit of it, including when they had their snack and what they ate, and they’ll remind you that they had apple as well as Cheerios. But whereas you might bore yourself at bedtime, Shirley Hughes does not bore you.

Shirley Hughes had the knack of writing and drawing honestly, without pretension. It’s tempting to me to compare her to Maurice Sendak, given their beautiful art and stories, but Sendak was delving into the psychology and pulling it out to be seen. Shirley Hughes was telling the surface story with such a complete understanding of the layers that they were evident without being uncovered– rather like Hilary McKay in her novels. But they’re all beautifully, unflinchingly, honest. When you chuckle over a particularly cute picture or moment in Shirley Hughes, it’s with unperturbed affection, and it’s never patronizing, never manipulative, nor would she manipulate you, or, worse, a child. Alfie and Annie Rose, I was convinced as a child and I remain convinced today, are real.

That’s how she taught me to accept every bit of being 3 or 4 years old, living it and living with it. No, I’m not a perfect parent, and I sure wasn’t a perfect child. But I knew then, and I know now, that Shirley Hughes saw me and loved me for who I was, and loved me as a parent who loved and continues to love my child. She never gave me advice, she never suggested I look at such an such a parenting book, she never looked askance at how I dressed my kids, nor did she tell me what she did when she had kids, and she never even told me what her friends did with their kids. She simply put down a true, real story, throbbing with love and acceptance of the wonderful and tiring and difficult and lovely bits of childhood. And I would read them over and over without tiring of them, they resonated so deeply.

The books are startlingly diverse, especially when you think about the earlier publishing time and place. Alfie and Annie Rose are white, but their friends span a wide range of cultures. I was quietly grateful for that, as a parent who looks for diversity in her library but also remembered these books and loved them. It’s quite something to be able to pick up a book published long before it was even a question, and see how ahead of its time it was. And it sure gives another perspective on that entrenched excuse that something is “a product of its time.” Shirley Hughes wasn’t concerned with that nonsense; she was writing and drawing what she observed to be true, not what she or others wanted to see and hear.

I think that’s why, when I was first discussing her with the owner of my local Children’s Book Shop, and I was saying how I just couldn’t put my finger on what made her art so utterly perfect, Terri said, so simply, “She knows how to draw children.” It’s true. In art and in words, Shirley Hughes drew children. She didn’t tell them who they should be, she didn’t tell parents what we should do. She simply put us all down with tender and loving accuracy, and we feel seen and loved for ourselves.

When I got this news, I told my friends I felt that I’d lost chosen family. It’s silly, maybe. While I did once make sure I told her, via someone on Twitter, how much I loved her work, we never met, I don’t think she knew me at all, except that once someone told her that a woman over in Boston loved her books. I like to think it would have given her a minute of pleasure, hearing that. But I have always had a very strong feeling of closeness because of the intimate truth of her work. And I know I will miss her. But I am so grateful for her years of work and her relentless truthfulness.

3 thoughts on “Shirley Hughes

  1. A beautiful analysis of what makes Shirley Hughes unique. I love the way you compare her way of depicting the surface of a child’s life with Sendak’s way of depicting the hidden layers!


  2. An illustrator once told me that when she needed inspiration in drawing children, she always went back to Shirley Hughes’ books.


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