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Inside the world of Shirley Hughes

Children’s author and illustrator dies at age of 94

Shirley Hughes has died “peacefully at home” at the age of 94 after a lifetime of writing and illustrating books treasured by children worldwide, her family have announced.

The best-selling author wrote more than 50 books and illustrated around 200 more, including the Alfie series and Dogger, an award-winning story about a boy who loses his toy dog.

“There’s a strong argument to be made that, if you’ve read Dogger, you can probably relax about other literature,” said author Katherine Rundell in The Telegraph. “Get to Dostoevsky when you can, but you’ve got the basics covered.”

Hughes made “the world of her books shine with sheer reality”, taking “absolutely seriously the perils and triumphs of young childhood”, Rundell added.

For novelist and screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce, precision is what sets apart works by Hughes, who died at her west London home on Friday following a short illness. “No one since Rembrandt has so perfectly captured the precarious half-balance of the toddler’s toddle,” he wrote in The New Statesman

Nor has anyone else “depicted ordinary domestic mess so honestly”, he said. The “often slightly tatty and just a bit weary” parents depicted in her books made her world welcoming – “as though she was looking you up and down and saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll do.’”

These “engaging characters” and their “immediacy and vigour” came from her “skilful and distinctive illustrations, using pen and ink, watercolour and gouache”, said Julia Eccleshare in The Guardian.

And in real life, Hughes was “just the person” her fans might have expected her to be, continued Eccleshare. “Usually in a hat, she was effortlessly elegant and graceful, and wonderful company: funny, insightful and kind with a laugh that was both loud and heartfelt.”

No regrets 

Hughes was born in 1927 in West Kirby, Wirral, and was the daughter of T.J. Hughes, the owner of a Liverpool department store of the same name. He died by suspected suicide when she was five, leaving his widow, Kathleen, to bring up their three daughters. 

In a childhood “with a lot of leisure time”, the future author “spent hours sketching, drawing and writing stories and plays with her two sisters”, said Eccleshare.

These family theatrical productions continued through “years of rationing, blackouts, bombings and crushing tedium” of the Second World War, said Jan Benzel in The New York Times. Hughes went on to study costume design at Liverpool Art School. and then drawing at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford.

Her books later made her “a beloved figure in England, honoured by Queen Elizabeth II and showered with awards”, Benzel continued.

Hughes he spent “hours at neighbourhood playgrounds, watching the way children moved, stood, ran and played” before returning to her drawing board. She was “fascinated by how children’s physicality conveyed emotion – triumph and shyness, fear and sadness, determination and jubilation, intentionally or not”.

In an interview with The Independent in 2013, she described her life as “unfailingly interesting, inspired by family life”. Her marriage, to architect John Vulliamy, spanned from 1952 until his death in 2007, and she had three children and grandchildren, whom she said really made her laugh.

Greatest regret? asked the newspaper. “I don't go in for them,” Hughes replied.

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