Shirley Hughes’s Conservative Imagination

Culture

Shirley Hughes’s Conservative Imagination

The children’s author who passed away this year left behind a wealth of stories that teach children how to appreciate the ordinary, local and unique.

(David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images

A new school year brings new books for grade-schoolers. However, Shirley Hughes is the last notable child’s writer to have made it this far. The British author and illustrator, whose books sold more than 11 million copies worldwide and earned her many awards, died in February at her home in London after sixty years at the easel. This is not just a tragedy for the children but also for their parents, who loved her books and could call them conservative in the best possible way.

Shirley Hughes was introduced to my family while I lived in Thailand many years ago. The owner of the largest and most accessible English-language collection of books in Bangkok was a 150-year-old private library adjacent to the British Club (annual family dues were only $100!). It’s not surprising that a large proportion of books in Bangkok were imported from the United Kingdom. Many of these books were written by Shirley Hughes.

Hughes’s children’s books instantly stand out among the rest. Each page is a masterpiece of artistic talent. Hughes studied at Liverpool School of Art and then went on to the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. In an era when many children’s books rely on cheap computer graphics, it’s refreshing to discover an illustrator who obviously labored, with deep attention to detail, over every page.

It’s not just the illustrative talent and distinctive style using pen and ink, watercolor and gouache, to “infuse ordinary domestic scenes with a mixture of coziness and magic” that sets Hughes’s works apart. Hughes was an excellent storyteller. That’s not because her stories are particularly imaginative; indeed, none of her books flirts with the fantastical (though there are a few fairy tales). Perhaps it is the simple and familiar stories that are so appealing to parents and kids, which may seem counterintuitive.

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Take Dogger, one of Hughes’s earlier books, published in 1977, which sold millions of copies and won Britain’s Kate Greenaway Medal. Dogger is the story of Dave, a young boy who loses his beloved stuffed dog when he and his mother and younger brother go to pick up his sister at school. He is likely to have dropped the dog because he was distracted by his mother purchasing ice cream for his sister and him. It also features a school fair the following day, with entertaining pictures of, among other things, children dressed up in silly costumes, a fathers’ race, and adults in bell-bottoms (it was the ’70s!). There is also a heartwarming, happy resolution.

Much of what makes Dogger and the rest of Hughes’s corpus so engaging is that the stories are told from the perspective of the child encountering everyday events–some of which are novel and thus exciting or scary, others that are familiar and thus comforting. For a boy aged four or five, nothing is more thrilling than attending a school fair, where prizes and games are offered. What’s better than sleeping beside your favorite toy with childlike assurance that the parents are always there to protect you? Hughes is able to describe the lives of children from their own perspectives, drawing out wonder in what many of us assume is boring or uninteresting.

In her beloved Alfie series, we follow around the eponymous well-mannered little boy and his sister Annie Rose as they experience all the kinds of events that define youth. Alfie is at a party to celebrate Bernard’s birthday. Bernard acts like any five-year old who gets overwhelmed by all the attention and behaves like an idiot. Alfie and Annie Rose, with the help of mom and grandmother, set up a pretend shop in their yard using leaves and acorns as money. Alfie gets a pair of new rainboots, but has difficulty putting them on his feet. Annie Rose and Alfie accidentally lock their house after returning from the grocery store.

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I have no idea how my kids would love the stories, even though I am a teacher with a master’s degree. Is there any place for all these absurdist stories, silly rhymes and crazy creatures? But my children do love them. Hughes books tell them what they see and feel every day. These books also tell them, in soothing tones, that their world, with all its inhabitants and curiousities, is very interesting.

These stories reflect a conservative view of childhood. “She could create a sense of drama out of the smallest thing and resolve it without ever needing to deliver a message,” noted the Guardian’s obituary earlier this year. She believed that children and parents were largely rational and able to resolve problems .”

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I have yet to see a Hughes book about a family that is broken–maybe there is. But, of all the stories that I’ve told my kids, it seems that the presumption that families are strong and that parents and children love each other and show affection is the one that prevails. It’s easy to feel a sense of community, as well as an appreciation of working-class men. Stories include milkmen, painters and movers who are all shown sympathetically as part of the local neighborhood. There is also a love of the natural world and a fondness for the bucolic. Stories of family visiting the country and marvelling at unusual behavior of farm animals and wildlife are common.

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Church looms in the background of some stories, though less to preach some religious or theological idea than as part of what a full, authentic childhood is supposed to look like. There’s also a whimsical esteem for a past that reflects a simpler way of life, and even thoughtful, authentic considerations of various periods of English history. Hughes’s poem, “Statue,” depicts Alfie running about the “bigstone man”, a statue representing an unknown, dead English lord. Hughes wrote that “when everybody’s gone home/and the park’s closed/and it’s all darkness, /he’s still sitting here”–nothing was done to him or taken down by the patriarchy-hating woke mobs.

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Perhaps part of why I love reading Shirley Hughes is because it brings back memories of my childhood. I remember being a child and wandering the streets, enjoying the trees and water, wondering if anyone was watching me. It’s the kinds of things childhood is supposed to be about, not contemplating anti-racism, your gender identity, or, God help us, abortion. Before we can ever critique the world in a productive and prudent way, it is essential that our inherent inclinations to treasure and enjoy life be encouraged.

I’m certain Shirley Hughes held political views, some of which would have been a disagreement with mine. But whatever they were, her cultural sensibilities–which, in the Aristotelian sense, are essentially political anyway–were profoundly conservative: individual responsibility, respect for the past, appreciation for traditional families, and a love of the local. “If there’s anything wrong with childhood today,” she told the Guardian in a 2015 interview, “[it’s] that there’s too much on offer and everything moves at great speed. It’s important for children to linger on the pages, look at the text, and consider themselves readers before they are able to read. This is an approach worth celebrating in this digital age.

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