Award-winning British author-illustrator Shirley Hughes, best known for her picture books capturing the everyday experiences and emotions of young children in her realistic watercolors, died on February 25 at her home in London. She was 94.
Hughes was born July 16, 1927 and grew up in Hoylake, a seaside town on the Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool, where her father founded the department store T.J. Hughes. “I liked books as a child, but mostly for the pictures,” she wrote in Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. “I doted on comics, too, and was also much given to bursting out from the sitting-room curtains expecting applause.”
Hughes’ father died when she was five and she often recalled a childhood overshadowed by World War II. She began drawing and making up stories in her early years, sometimes doodling and jotting on the backs of envelopes. She would ride her bicycle to a nearby cinema and stay and watch movies during air raids until the all-clear signal was given and she could return home. Hughes enjoyed live theater as well and her mother would often take her to performances, a pursuit that sparked Hughes’s interest in costume and set design. She studied both at Liverpool School of Art. But she then went on to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford where one of her instructors suggested she might be better suited to illustration and encouraged her to shift her course of study. Hughes always insisted that the two art forms weren’t really that different and that her picture book characters were playing the roles she created for them.
Upon graduating from art school, Hughes settled in London and began work as a freelance illustrator. Her first gig, in 1950, was illustrating The Hill War by Olivia FitzRoy. In 1952, Hughes married architect John Sebastian Papandiek Vulliamy with whom she raised one daughter (Clara Vulliamy who also became an illustrator and collaborated with her mother on the Dixie O’Day series) and two sons. That same year, Hughes illustrated My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards (Methuen), the first in what grew to be a very popular series.
Hughes continued illustrating books by various authors throughout the 1950s, often working on the family’s dining table. But her children’s book career truly took hold with the 1960 publication of her original title Lucy and Tom’s Day (Gollancz). It was the first of eight titles following two young siblings throughout their day. “I started to write my own picture books when my three children were very young, about the age to be read to,” she wrote.
Initially, not everyone was as confident about Hughes’ budding career as she was. “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,” Hughes told PW in 2013. “And then I wrote and illustrated Dogger and that was a breakthrough all over the world.”
Dogger (Bodley Head, 1977; Prentice-Hall, 1978 under the title David and Dog), about a boy who loses his beloved stuffed dog and discovers it on the rummage sale table at the school fair, was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration in 1977, the first of Hughes’s two wins (the other was Ella’s Big Chance). For Dogger, she was voted the most popular winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal of all time during celebrations marking the award’s 50th anniversary in 2007.
With 1981’s Alfie Gets in First (Bodley Head), Hughes introduced another favorite character in four-year-old Alfie. He and his younger sister Annie Rose would eventually star in 25 books including some story treasuries.
Following her husband’s death in 2007, Hughes turned her hand to writing her first novel as a way to fill the quiet time on weekends, which she told PW had become “really hell.” The result was Hero on a Bicycle (Candlewick, 2013), set in Nazi-occupied Florence in 1944, which was published when Hughes was 84. “This idea germinated for a long time,” she said. “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.... I kept a sketchbook and it was just a wonderful, inspiring place.” Two more WWII-era novels followed, Whistling in the Dark (Candlewick, 2017) and Ruby in the Ruins (Candlewick, 2018).
In all, Hughes created more than 60 books of her own, which have sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. She also illustrated roughly 200 additional titles by other authors.
Among her many accolades, Hughes was the winner of the inaugural BookTrust lifetime achievement award in 2015 in her native England and was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1999 and a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2017, in honor of the positive impact she has made through her work.
Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press and managing director of the Walker Books Group, offered these words of tribute: “Walker Books and Candlewick Press are deeply saddened to learn of the death of our beloved author and illustrator Shirley Hughes. Shirley has been a part of the Walker Books family since almost the very beginning, with her groundbreaking Nursery Collection and Out and About, featuring the irrepressible Olly and Katie. She had an instinctive sense of what would appeal to young children and highlighted the drama and excitement of their everyday lives in her warmhearted stories. Always ahead of her time, from her earliest books right through to her most recent, her books represent the diversity of inner-city life she saw around her, making them accessible to all. Shirley understood children’s capacity to pore over and absorb the details in pictures, and she always gave them the very best. Her draughtsmanship was second to none. Shirley was one of the most loved and admired writers and illustrators of all time, and she will be sorely missed by us all. Our thoughts are with her family at this sad time.”