Book Reviews

A Brush With The Past : Shirley Hughes

A Brush With the Past: 1900 - 1950 The Years that Changed our LivesA Brush With the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that Changed our Lives by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was upon reading this that I came to realise something about Shirley Hughes and that is the great genuine humanity of her artwork. I have spoken before about how much I love her work (Alfie Gets In First possesses what is perhaps the most skilled usage of the picture book format I have ever seen) and A Brush With The Past is a rather wonderful addition to that canon. Canon. We don’t often use that word with children’s literature, or picture books, and it often gets fixed to something deeply removed from most people’s experience. The highest of terms. But in doing that, in allowing it to be taken and applied to work that perhaps deserves such a label yet achieves that at the exclusion of others, we do ourselves an injustice. So here I shall reclaim it. Shirley Hughes has a canon; it is a nuanced and smart and genuine and human and wonderful space which reflects all of what we are and all of what we could be. What skill this is, what skill.

A Brush With The Past is constructed on a quietly steady pattern, hinging on the dialogue between singular pages of information and lusciously rich double page spreads which detail the fifty years of history between the 1900s and 1950s. This spreads, human all, show different scenes from the period ranging from a family meal to lunching alone through to a business man’s meeting.


It’s the double page spreads that make this book into something quite spectacular. The detailed little notes around the years are fabulous; alternatively exuberant or quiet, calm and vibrant, and burning with the eye of an observer. We know Hughes can draw, but this is somebody who can capture. These are moments of life; all of them grounded in the human experience and captured so very carefully. An artistic blink. But oh those double page spreads, the richness of them. I returned to them often in this book just to stare and to let the great power of Hughes’ work hit me. This is palpable, honest, heartfelt and loving art. Look at how a boy sat at the table could sit with both feet flat on the chair but instead doesn’t; look at the energy trapped in that left leg of his, and the raised sole of the right foot. He doesn’t want to be there any longer than he has to be. IMG_20170103_221733931.jpg

Look at the other end of the table; the vague outline of the bare-boned tree outside and the little tableau occuring between the two women. The ambition that she’ll eat it. That she’ll appreciate it. The certainty that she won’t. The cat lurking, ready to pick up any leftovers. This is what I mean when I talk about humanity; Hughes finds detail and she pushes her work full of it. IMG_20170103_221723239.jpg

Book Reviews

Dixie O’Day In The Fast Lane : Shirley Hughes & Clara Vulliamy

Dixie O'Day: In The Fast LaneDixie O’Day: In The Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s books like this that make me remember why I enjoy children’s literature so. I’ve spoken before about my love for Hughes and Vulliamy; the bold, generous, reader-centred nature of their writing and artwork, and so came to Dixie with great expectations.

Which was odd, really, because I Do Not Get Cars. I mean, I really don’t. Horses, ballet, witches and wizards I get, but cars leave me spectacularly cold. Spectacularly. It remains family legend that on the only time I have ever had cause to phone my car insurance people and they asked “What was the other car?” and I said “…….red?”

Cars and me don’t mix. (“And where did the incident occur?” “….near the Chinese?”)

But I think Dixie O’Day might just work for me. It’s a chapter book for new chapter book readers; structured in a considered seven chapter format (ie: one for every night of the week). And that, just that gets a star from me because it is clever and fun and smart. Hughes and Vulliamy get how to make books good. That’s possibly the least critically astute sentence I’ve ever written but it’s true. Hughes’ text is vividly Hughesian (can we make that a verb? Let’s) and writes a story with influences ranging from Whacky Races through to the Wind In The Willows. It’s lovely. There’s not many people that know how to construct text for this age group without being either viciously didactic or patronising. Hughes never, ever does either. There’s a rather empowering feel to the text of Dixie and it’s something quite brilliant.

Vulliamy is one of my great picture book loves. I adore her artwork and her skill in making a book so open and generous in a way. Her work is something to be savoured and to be devoured all at the same time.

In Dixie, Vulliamy’s centred on a red, black and white spectrum of colours. This ranges through ear-grey, smokey broken-engine-blacks, through to smug-car-pink. Her Dixie and Percy are vividly delightful (and reminiscent to me of another great double act – Winnie the Pooh and Piglet), and there are moments in this book that made me (who doesn’t do cars!) squeal with delight. The ‘black smoke’ moment on page ten is just perfectly constructed.

I often have people ask me why I treat children’s literature in the way that I do, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, it’s books like this which remind me. I write these sorts of reviews and I read these sorts of books because they are, regardless of how they’re dressed up or presented, story. At the heart of it, they’re stories which tell us how to be brave, or to be a good friend or how sometimes the best thing in life is a custard cream at the right time. And all of that happens in this book which makes me now, very much, Team Dixie.

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Everything else

Dear Shirley Hughes

Dear Shirley Hughes,

You’ve changed worlds. Honestly. I think that’s why I sort of stared at you a bit (sorry) when I got the chance to hear you and your family talk in person about your endeavours. I think I stared because of the realisation (and I get this so often) that you’ve made a world of iconic characters come to life through your words and your art. You’ve given us so, so much.

Alfie. Dogger. My Naughty Little Sister. Ella. Constanza.

Whether it’s your words, or your pictures, I now can’t picture these characters in any other shape or form. That’s what good – great – illustration does. It defines things. It makes things real.

I still can’t look at an Alfie book without smiling. And when I find your illustrations, tucked away quietly in the most hidden of places, it makes me smile even more. There’s something about your work that is just a part of me now and I think, in a way, part of all of us. There’s something so iconic in the way you catch the curve of a cheek, the sparkling naughtiness in an eye, that we all know it. Even if we don’t know we know it.

So thank you. Thank you for your art. Thank you for your smart, clever and beautiful picture books. Thank you for giving us characters that have and will endure for the longest of days. Thank you for making me look at a picture book and see the world.

Happy birthday. Happiest, happiest of birthdays.

Me x

Book Reviews

Ella’s Big Chance : Shirley Hughes

Ella's Big Chance: A Jazz-Age CinderellaElla’s Big Chance: A Jazz-Age Cinderella by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a richness to everything Shirley Hughes produces, and it’s this richness which comes to the forefront of Ella’s Big Chance. This, as the front cover, states is ‘a fairy tale retold’. It is a retelling of Cinderella, set in ‘the jazz-age’. And it is practically glowing with riches.

Cinderella is such an archetypal story that it needs very little precis. It is the story of a girl, her wicked stepmother and a night on the town that Cinderella will never forget.

In this story, we meet Ella, the daughter of Mr Cinders. The two of them run a dressmaking shop ‘in a quiet but elegant part of town’. There’s an air of faded gentility from the start as the sun eases through the windows to illustrate the shop – the colours, living, under the touch of Ella and her father.

Ella herself is something particularly glorious. Drawn as a sort of Gina Lollobrigida meets Sophia Loren hybrid both facially and physically, her hair close cropped into a wild bob, she’s an all too rare and incredibly beautiful creation. I loved her.

As ever in a Hughes book, there’s a deep awareness of time and the experience of the reader. She’s never selfish in her illustrations, there’s always some sort of – look at me – moment to every scene. The majority of the pages are constructed in a half and half scenario, a white block of text playing next to, or opposite a full colour image. What’s particularly interesting in these pages is that the majority of the text sections have a sort of ‘transitory’ image in pen and ink. These simple black and white moments carry a lot of the book until the ball, and they do so because of their elegance. They transition the reader from scene to scene, joining the story together in a sort of visual stitching. Hughes is very skilled at not letting you go once she has you.

When we reach the ball scene, which is something we’re always waiting for in a Cinderella story, it is not disappointing. Hughes goes for it and produces images that are just – richness. They are luscious and edible and dreamlike all at the same time. She balances the vivid intensity of the moment with human touches. When Ella arrives at the ball, walking down the stairs in her silver dress that is visually stunning, Hughes throws in moments all over the scene. A gentleman at the edge of the far page has eyes for nobody but Ella even though his partner is talking; a group of women stare in shock and distaste at this competitor, whilst another woman serene in her duties as host holds out her arm to greet Ella who pauses, so very briefly, at the stairs to close her eyes and savour the moment.

It’s worthwhile to note that in this book Hughes designed all of the dresses. So when you read it, remember this and note her use of colours and shapes. See how Ella in her black shift dress is the centre of the picture, always, linked by the black and white images that thread through this book and yet somehow, always in the shadows, her dress blurring into the darkness of the shop and the cellar. Watch the peacock nature of one of Ella’s step-sisters, posing in her vivid red dress, uncaring that she blocks up half of the image and steals focus from her sister. Look at the way Ella’s ball dress is conjured from the night and the stars and the silvery magic of her fair godmother.

Look a this book, and treasure it, and take your time over it. And then do it all over again. It’s a book that rewards slow, leisurely, indulgent reading.

(And it gives you the most perfect, perfect of conclusions).

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Book Reviews

Alfie gets in first : Shirley Hughes

Alfie Gets in FirstAlfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We all know and love Alfie right? I do. He’s an iconic character, created by the equally iconic Shirley Hughes, and this is one of my favourite titles starring him and his younger sister Annie Rose.

But, before I talk about this, I need to segue slightly. The other day I was discussing comic books with somebody and how they were being disparaged by parents who did not approve of their children who read these books. My point there, and one which applies here as well, was that the visual literacy needed to read and appreciate comics is massive – and it all contributes towards becoming literate. It is just another, and a deceptively complicated, route towards literacy.

Let me tell you about what I mean, and luckily enough there are moments in Alfie Gets In First which sum this up superbly. Consider the spreads where the locked door is placed central, down the spine of the book, indicated by the gutter between the two panels on either facing page. The verso(left) page tells the story of the increasingly active outdoor narrative, whilst the recto (right) page tells the story of Alfie, inside. What’s particularly glorious is that, at the same time of these two differing visual narratives, we also have a third layer to the book – that of the text, which describes the whole of the story, quite often ignoring what is going on beneath it, therefore forcing the reader to puzzle out and see what’s actually going on.

And then (not only, but also) we have the treatment of time in the book, the way the verso spread is slightly ahead of the text on the recto page and then, when the impact of the text starts to hit home, we appreciate the recto imagework even more. Take a look at the moment where Alfie starts to cry, his face crumbling as he realises the predicament of his situation. It is beautifully done, capturing the small boy in the shift – the actual moment – where he starts to panic a little bit.

It is all so subtle and so very cleverly handled. Picture books like this have a sort of deceptive skill about them. It’s easy to put a picture on a page. It’s not easy to load it with visual cues, to capture a cat mid leap out of the frame, to include incentives to turn the page, and to tell a story. It’s not.

Shirley Hughes is one of our national storytelling treasures. It’s easy to forget sometimes that we are living in a golden age of children’s literature and have been doing so for a good few years now. I genuinely think that names such as Shirley Hughes are those who flew the flag to get us here. And long may she keep on flying that flag.

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Book Reviews

Hero on a bicycle : Shirley Hughes

Hero on a BicycleHero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The thing about Shirley Hughes is that she’s one of the authors that you think you know. And in a way, you do. When you think Shirley Hughes, you think of things like Dogger, of Alfie, of my Naughty Little Sister and her puckishly naughty face. She’s a doyenne of children’s literature and for good reason. Hughes has come to be one of those writers / illustrators that crosses borders and escapes the echo chamber and has become pretty much instantly recognisable to anybody who’s ever had a kid, been a kid, or walked past a bookshop. You may not know her name but you definitely know her work.

And so, because of all of this, Hero on a Bicycle is really intriguing. It’s her first novel which is quite amazing when you consider her output. Set in Florence in 1944, Paolo and his family are living in troubled times. Florence is under German occupation and it seems that only the Italian resistance is still fighting. But then things, well, they happen, and suddenly Paolo and his mother and sister are drawn into the fight alongside the partisans and against the occupiers.

I really loved this. There’s a slightly old-fashioned feel to Hughes’ writing which is gorgeous. It’s all rich and warm and poignant. At points I found myself thinking of the incomparable The Railway Children. Constanza is definitely cut from the same cloth as my beloved Bobbie.

What I think works about this approach as well is that it allows Hughes to write about people and this is clearly where her strengths lie and have always done so. She’s brilliant at writing the relationships and ties between people and focusing on the smallest of moments. I have a bit of a thing about authors who forget that even at the greatest, world-shifting moments, people still act as people. Hughes doesn’t do that and I actually think that despite Paolo’s obvious appeal, there’s something great about Constanza in this book.

It’s a warm, subtly told tale that doesn’t hold back from the shadows of anything set in wartime. And the quote on the front of my copy, describing it as a ‘new classic’ is utterly spot on.

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Everything else

Something To Do

Welcome to the world of “Something To Do”. I have a massive weakness for this sort of book. Anything that is full of Handy Hints and Useful Tips and Exciting Things For Girls And Boys pretty much gets an instant pass with me.  Published in 1966, written by ‘Septima’ and illustrated by the divine Shirley Hughes, “Something To Do” is lovely.

Covering an entire year, it goes through each month and presents a list of things for children to do. Each month starts with a little frontispiece and a poem. I absolutely love the little look of the June girl. She looks so unimpressed with the entire situation!

Following the introduction to the month, we then get to see a range of activities. I’ve picked out some of my highlights below. February, for example, is brilliant: “Because February seems to be the month when we catch most colds, or get all the infectious diseases, it seemed a good idea to suggest things you can do in bed. Of course, you don’t have to be ill to do them…” The little boy in the bed is so spectacularly Shirley Hughes (and perhaps the father of Alfie?) he just sparks with repressed mischief and a sort of “I’m faking being ill so I can stay in bed and miss school” attitude. He’s the sort of boy who I could definitely see drawing red dots on his cheeks with crayons…

Some of the other ideas in the book are very much of their time. They recommend pets for each month (which cracks me up no end), and the April pet is a Muscovy duck: “…only possible if you live in the countryside”. January’s pet on the other hand is a Golden Hamster that comes with the pointed warning: “Hamsters’ lives are gay and short. They live only about two year. So, when he dies, remember him happily and choose another pet quickly.” It’s the careful addition of the word ‘quickly’ here that pushes this straight into pure brilliance.

One of the other moments I particularly adored was the ideas of how to keep yourself entertained on a long car trip: “Ask mother to make up a surprise basket for you … into the basket she will put some small surprise packets to be opened at half-hourly intervals. Inside there might be a coloured pencil, potty putty, a padlock and key, a little puzzle, or something to read.” My favourite part of this section is the careful warning: “don’t ask her until the day before you leave or she will be too busy”. And the fact that the things in this surprise basket sound like the beginnings of a murder mystery… (She was in the car! With the potty putty  and the padlock!)

The final thing about books like these that makes me love them so is that quite often they have the mark of the previous owner. This copy is no exception. Stuck into the front cover is a carefully notated list of ideas taken from the book (“Sue’s book” as it says on the side).  Things left in books are spooky and inherently thrilling. These books are stories in their own right. Forget what happens in the pages – whenever I find things like this, I can’t help but wonder who held it first.