“It’s the way she draws children’s curled fingers.” That’s what my friend Sarah Dudman said when she heard that the children’s author and illustrator Shirley Hughes had died. Sarah is a brilliant editor and just like a brilliant editor she had gone to the heart of it. The way Hughes drew those fingers – anxiously clutching toys, or happily holding hands – is at the core of what she did.
Love expresses itself as precision. And she really had precision. No one since Rembrandt has so perfectly captured the precarious half-balance of the toddler’s toddle. And I don’t think anyone ever has depicted ordinary domestic mess so honestly. The parents in her books are often slightly tatty and just a bit weary. That was partly why the books felt so welcoming – as though she was looking you up and down and saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll do.”
The parents were also always present in the story – something unusual in children’s books. Even more unusual, the siblings in her stories are often really good – even gallant – to each other. The neighbourhood is warm and friendly and multicultural. Her world is our world at its best. The mess and the frizz have their place within a bigger conviction that stories about ordinary children doing ordinary things – getting locked out, losing a toy – could be just as full of courage, wonder and grace as any epic of fairyland.
Philip Pullman said Hughes’s importance would be measured not in honours and prizes but in just how battered the covers of her books would end up. The child whose first encounter with books is when they are asked to decode one in the school room is at a huge disadvantage over the child whose first encounter with books is curled up with a parent or carer, relishing the details of Angel Mae’s nativity play. Hughes’s books gave that huge advantage to millions of children. But the educational advantage is nothing compared to the contribution books like this – books in which the older reader and the younger person being read to are truly sharing – make to the building of an interior happy place.
There’s a moment at the end of Lucy & Tom’s Christmas when Christmas has been too much for the little boy – that honesty again – and the grandad takes him out for a walk to calm him down. If I was writing it I’d be tempted to fill that sky with stars and give the snow a magical polish. Hughes’s version glows with streetlight, not starlight. The snow is already turning to sludge. Grandad is clearly feeling the cold. But those fingers curl round each other, and the warmth between the old and the young is brighter and more true than any fabulous star.
This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror