"I don't get creative block," says Shirley Hughes. "I don't know why, but I always have more ideas that I have time to get down on paper." Nearly 70 years after she began her career as an illustrator – her first assignment, illustrating Olivia Fitzroy's The Hill War, was published in 1950 – the creator of beloved characters such as Alfie and Dogger is still a creative force to be reckoned with. In recent years, she's written her first novels for older children as well as collaborating with her daughter, illustrator Clara Vulliamy. She celebrated her 90th birthday in July and is working on her next book.
She's also celebrating the 40th birthday of Dogger, the story of a small boy who loses his beloved toy dog, which has just been reissued in a lovely new edition. None of the children in Hughes's books are based on real children. But Dogger is based on a real toy that once belonged to her son. Ed Vulliamy, the celebrated journalist. The real Dogger has appeared in many exhibitions including one at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. "But as he is getting on a bit, he's given up the celebrity circuit," says Hughes. "Now he lives quietly in a box. But he does come out for family occasions."
Hughes grew up in a middle-class family just outside Liverpool – her father, who died when she was very young, founded a successful department store. As a "stage struck" teenager she dreamed of being a costume designer and studied fashion drawing and design at Liverpool Art School. She went on to attend the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, where a visiting tutor changed her life. "He didn't think much of us, he thought we were a lot of flighty girls who were there to get engaged. But on the very last day he turned to me and said, 'You. You could be an illustrator if you really work at it'. He gave me an introduction to [the publisher] Collins and that led to the first book I got. And I've never forgotten that."
Hughes's first professional illustrations appeared in 1950, an incredibly vibrant time for children's publishing in Britain. After illustrating some rather dull school readers, Hughes "got a marvellous breakthrough with an author called Dorothy Edwards who wrote My Naughty Little Sister. She was an established author and she saw my work and asked me to do her next book." Hughes never looked back.
As a small child in the late 1970s, My Naughty Little Sister was my own introduction to Hughes's work. She was the first illustrator whose distinctive style I both adored and could immediately recognise. It's still impossible to mistake one of her drawings, with their delicious inkiness and incredibly expressive children, for anyone else's. Did her drawings always look like "Shirley Hughes drawings"? "They didn't start to look like Shirley Hughes drawings until I decided I wanted to be an illustrator rather than a fashion designer," she says. So how did her style develop? "You have to hone it, you do lots of observation, lots of life drawing. It takes a long time to develop a fully mature style."
Her heroes have always been similarly distinctive illustrators, such as the great Edward Ardizzone. "He was a wonderful draftsman and a wonderful story teller. He could do both."
Hughes spent a long time illustrating the novels of others, notably the great Noel Streatfeild, for whom she drew many wonderfully grumpy girls. "The best is the kind of author who says, 'Here's the text, do something with it,'" she says. "You don't want them to breathe down your neck all the time saying, 'By the way, this should be like that, that one is based on my auntie'. That would be awful. But the good authors just say, 'Do something, give it another dimension that I can't do and I can't imagine.'"
Hughes had always wanted to do a book of her own, and her first, Lucy and Tom's Day, was published in 1960. Hughes clearly still relishes the limitations and the possibilities of the 32-page picture-book format. When producing Alfie Gets in First back in 1981, in which young Alfie runs into his house and slams the door, leaving his parents locked outside, Hughes realised she could use the division between adjacent pages to advance the story.
One of the challenges today is to protect them from being visually overstimulated, clicking on from one image to another much too quickly
“There was Alfie inside, on the right hand of the spread, and the frantic parents on the doorstep on the other side of the spread,” she says. “And I didn’t even have to draw the door, because the youngest child knows that that [page] is outside the door, and that’s inside it, and the line down the middle is the door. I used the form of the book so even the nonreader knows what is happening. And the children are ahead of the text.”
Anyone who has read a story to a toddler knows that small children react very strongly to their favourite picture books, which Hughes believes can play a particularly important role these days.
“One of the challenges today is to protect them from being visually overstimulated, clicking on from one image to another much too quickly,” she says. “I want to slow them down and encourage them to make their personal exploration of an illustration at their own pace, to linger over a still picture.” She laments the fact that so few novels for older children are illustrated these days. “It seems a shame,” she says, “that suddenly, because you can read a longer text, you’re deprived of the pictures.”
Hughes gets lots of “marvellous letters from children”. Some ask for advice. “I got one letter saying ‘how do I make it beautiful?’ Or, ‘You are a clever lady and do good pictures. Please write back if you can, but you may need a break’.” Children don’t mince their words, however. “One kid wrote and said ‘I liked it when the bombs were dropping but the describing bits put me to sleep. It was all right in the start but then it goes boring. In the end I give it nine out of ten.’”
As someone who wrote to her last year (aged 40), I can attest that Hughes replies to all her fans. I tell her that since then, I’ve finally done what I’ve wanted to do for 25 years: I’ve have enrolled in an illustration course. What advice does she have? “Keep a sketchbook in your pocket,” she says firmly. “It doesn’t matter what sort of stuff you’re doing, it could be a rotten drawing. But it doesn’t matter, you just keep going. And you develop these powers of observation.”
The world occupied by today’s children is, in many ways, very different from the world of their parents and even grandparents who grew up with Hughes’s work. But Hughes firmly believes that children haven’t changed. Her ability to capture what it’s like to be a child comes from years of observation.
“I don’t use a sketch book there and then. But I watch the way they move, the way they look when they’re rather unsure of themselves, the way they all crouch down and peer at something on the ground and then get up and fly off like a flock of birds. It’s their movement. And then I go home and make it all up.”
Dogger by Shirley Hughes is published by Red Fox (£7.99)