In her 50 years in children’s literature, author and illustrator Shirley Hughes’s books have sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. Best known for her Greenaway Medal winners Dogger and Ella’s Big Chance, and the Alfie picture books, Hughes, now 85, recently penned her first novel, Hero on a Bicycle, which will be released here this month. Set in Nazi-occupied Florence in 1944, this highly charged thriller follows 13-year-old Paulo and his family as the Partisans (members of the Italian resistance) pressure them to harbor escaped prisoners in their cellar. Hughes creates a nuanced and emotional look at this critical period before the end of WWII. Bookshelf spoke with her from her London home about what led her to write this novel, how this process differed from picture books, and what she’s working on now.
You’ve had such a longstanding, successful career as an author and illustrator. What inspired you to write your first novel?
I’ve always wanted to write this story, though it took me a long time to get around to it and to pluck up the courage. My husband died in 2007 and I could work during the week but the weekends were really hell. So I just sat down at my kitchen table and wrote this novel. The form couldn’t be more different. Picture books begin with short text, an outline of sorts, but for me they really come from the visual and it has to be beautifully put together. Whereas with a novel, you just write and write and write.
This idea germinated for a long time. I visited Florence when I was 19, not long after the war. And I really thought it was the most beautiful city, but it still had the scars of war. The blown-up bridges had not been rebuilt across the Arno and there were tremendous food scarcities. The tourists were just beginning to trickle back. I kept a sketchbook and it was just a wonderful, inspiring place. The Partisans would gather on Sunday mornings in the Piazza Goldoni wearing their red neckerchiefs and sing their marching songs, such as “Bella Ciao” and “Avanti Populo.” It was then that I got to know a family just a bit like the family in this book. They had an English mother and were anti-Fascist and they really did this extraordinarily brave resistance work during the war.
How did you craft Hero on a Bicycle? What sort of research did you do?
During the week I was completely booked illustrating and writing on commission. So I would sit down at my kitchen table on weekends. I wrote the story out longhand because I do not use a word processor. I just told the story. I had a path in my mind about how it would work out, but I just wrote and wrote and wrote and never stopped. I was lucky enough to have a tremendously enthusiastic editor, Jane Winterbotham at Walker Books, who helped a great deal. And then my son Ed Vuilliamy, who had worked as a correspondent for the Guardian in Rome for a long time, gave me the colloquial remarks that the family’s cook/maid would have made.
I wasn’t able to talk to the family I’d known. The son died and the parents are presumably dead, as well. And the father in my book is completely fictitious. I knew I wanted there to be a missing heroic father, and that the protagonist Paulo wants also to be a hero. Paulo is fueled by too many American movies of World War II and he thinks it’s all terribly romantic in the beginning.
But I didn’t want the characters to be completely black and white – I didn’t want goodies and baddies. It’s vastly more complicated than that. The Partisans are brave but rather ruthless. And Helmut, the young German soldier, isn’t a brute and is in fact a very sympathetic character. I wanted people to know what a complex situation war really is.
In terms of research, I was extraordinarily lucky because my grandson Jack, who is an undergraduate at Oxford, leapt at the chance to become involved and really ran away with it. He did the most marvelous research. He helped put together the most wonderful Web site. You can access background about the period, information on weapons, aircraft, hit songs of the time, even fashion drawings by me – I used to do that kind of work. He even discovered newsreels, which showed the actual battle of liberation. I hope this will inspire readers to do some research of their own.
Did you draw upon your own memories of the war?
In a way I suppose I did, but not entirely. I grew up in a suburb outside of Liverpool, which wasn’t so bad, but Liverpool itself suffered relentless bombing. The Liverpool docks were a main target, as there were so many things coming in from the United States: food, weapons, and of course reinforcements. And sometimes when I was on my way home, I remember they would drop bombs even in our town – the extras so that the planes could lose weight on their way back. But it wasn’t like central Liverpool at all. I do have so many vivid memories from the war, but that’s for another novel.
How would you describe the experience of writing your first novel at this stage in your career?
It was completely different and terribly rewarding. At first I wasn’t confident. It is such a different process. When I write picture books I really start with the drawings and write the text very minimally. Not that they aren’t a literary form, but it’s more like writing a sonnet. Whereas with a novel you just get deeper and deeper into the story. I think if this ever were made into a film I would be so amazed by who they choose to cast. These characters and their looks live in my imagination instead of in illustration.
How do you structure your writing and illustrating days? Where do you work?
I am a widow now and my family is all grown up. I am so lucky to have all my grandchildren around and I get to see my family a lot, but still I have a lot of freedom with how I work. I get up every day, have breakfast and then go into my studio to work. I find getting out my paints inspiring. Whereas sitting down to write is completely cerebral, and so different.
In my studio I really make a mess. With a painting, at a certain moment you abandon it and start again. But with writing you can go on and on with the fine-tuning.
How did you enter the world of children’s literature? Do you think children’s literature and publishing have changed since you began?
There has been enormous change – it’s truly unbelievable. It is a real industry now. I originally trained as a fashion designer and hoped to create costumes for the stage. When I realized that wasn’t for me I started illustrating. When I started, children’s publishing was very small. I illustrated fairy tales and other people’s books and some of them were very boring. And when I plucked up the courage to try a picture book of my very own, I was told that my work was too typically English to be understood abroad. And then I wrote and illustrated Dogger and that was a breakthrough all over the world. But the industry is just so much bigger now.
What are you still keen to accomplish?
I would just rather go on working. I want to try another novel. And, of course, I want to keep on with picture books. I don’t think you can draw children unless you observe the real thing. The main character, Alfie, in the Alfie books, is based on a lot of observation, about how kids stand when they’re unsure and things like that. If you draw you remember. It’s just terrific memory training. It can be tremendously difficult, but boy, when it’s good it’s like flying to the moon.
In addition to writing and illustrating, what else do you enjoy?
I used to love to make my own clothes and do dressmaking. I don’t do as much now, as I really need to save my eyesight. I love to listen to the radio. I like to watch the television, we have such a high standard of television in the U.K., and there are always art programs or something that I can watch on. And then I spend so much time with my three children and seven grandchildren.
What are you working on now?
I just finished Alfie’s Christmas, which will be published in the autumn, about Alfie anxiously awaiting the holiday. And then there’s something very exciting. I am the author of a series called Dixie O’Day – which my daughter, Clara Vulliamy, is illustrating – that comes out in September in the U.K. We really aimed this series at children, especially boys, who have grown out of the picture book stage but can’t read a long book yet. So this is very action-packed and easy to read and organized in chapters. There are car races, going over cliffs, lots of jokes and things, and quite a bit to hold the reader’s attention. Clara’s illustrated it in line and one color. It’s so wonderful working with my daughter – she’s a wonderful author and illustrator. It’s just a thrill.
Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes. Candlewick, $15.99 (Apr.) ISBN 978-0-7636-6037-6
For PW’s review, click here.