“our foremost chronicler of the life of ordinary households” (Chris Powling of ‘Books for Keeps’ on Shirley Hughes)
Shirley Hughes was born on Merseyside in 1927 and began her career doing illustrations for other author’s books before writing and designing her own. Her most well known stories are probably Dogger, which won the Kate Greenaway medal in 1977, (and in 2007 an award for the best book ever to have won the Kate Greenaway Medal), the Lucy and Tom stories, which began in 1960 and the Alfie stories, which first appeared in 1981. Hughes has won many awards including the Eleanor Farjeon for distinguished services to children’s literature and has been awarded an OBE. This book is a collection of her work, as illustrator and author – most but not all of the stories were written by her, but all use her illustrations. It is separated into four parts: Stories and Rhymes for the Nursery years; Stories and Poems for Young Children; Stories and Poems for Older Children and Stories for All to Enjoy. There are nearly 350 big pages of stories, prose and rhymes for children.
I bought my (spotless) copy in a charity shop for £1.50 so was later pleased to discover it on sale in Waterstones for £19.99. It’s a hardback book, mine has the annoying removable sleeve that seems pointless for young children, I have a collection of them and I wish children’s publishers would stick to just the colourful hard cover. The cover image shows a gang of cheerful characters from Hughes’ stories forming a marching band with Alfie at the front banging a drum.
Hughes’ illustrations are fantastic. Her style is naturalistic, she uses watercolours a lot. I love her incredibly expressive faces and there is much vivid and humorous detail for children to look at. The pictures dominate the writing, particularly in the sections for younger children, with lots of full page and double spread illustrations and the writing seemingly added around them rather than the other way around.
The first section, ‘..for the Nursery Years’, contains mainly simple rhymes about things things like fingers and toes, the weather, opposites and includes the story, ‘Lucy and Tom at the Seaside’ which was one of the best stories from another collection of stories my daughter owns, (The Puffin Baby and Toddler Treasury), and is one of the reasons I bought this book after browsing through it in the charity shop. I don’t think I ever heard Lucy and Tom at the Seaside when I was little, but somehow I feel as though I did. There’s something familiar and almost comforting about it. It’s definitely a seventies story even though it retains it’s appeal to young children today with the timeless elements of jumping the waves, building a sandcastle, wasps at the picnic, donkey rides and ice cream.
I recognised ‘My Naughty Little Sister’, which is in the next section, from my infant school days, although I wasn’t aware of the author (Dorothy Edwards). Alfie stories dominate the early part of this section, which is the part I have spent most time reading with my daughter. She loves Dogger, Alfie, Angel Mae, and another favourite is a great little story called ‘Up and Up’, a word free cartoon strip in which a little girl develops the ability to fly. According to my daughter this little girl is called Rebecca and she is very popular in our house.
My only – very minor – criticism is that occasionally some of the stories can be a bit wordy. It almost seems churlish to mention this when I think of some of the utter rubbish that is published for children, but I think there are a few clunky sentences that could be improved, although I generally abridge anything like this in my own words as I’m reading. The stories all have engaging themes for young children. There’s something about them that involves a sort of slowing down, not much might happen, but what does is thoroughly explored. They can be quite long stories about simple pleasures such as a trip to the seaside or a birthday party, things that may seem humdrum to us jaded adults but are wondrous new experiences to a young child. The everyday is made special as Hughes manages to capture events with fresh eyes.
Most of this book has been a new experience for me. I was just too old for Dogger when it appeared and I was in my teens by the time the Alfie stories came out, but I have enjoyed discovering them with my daughter and don’t even mind the repeated, and repeated, and repeated readings. I like the way different characters return throughout the book in various stories and rhymes. Since buying this I have also loaned more of Hughes’ books from the library and bought ‘Tales of Trotter Street’.
I haven’t read a lot of the latter two parts of the book, but I’ve looked at them and they look interesting, although I suspect it is as an illustrator and author for pre school children that Hughes truly excels. Having said that, Hughes is so prolific and accomplished that there is no room for ‘fillers’ in here. The older childrens section includes a version of Cinderella, and ‘Sea Singing’, a spooky story about Selkies, (seal people). The stories seem to contain more magical elements as they become aimed at older children as is fitting for more imaginative older age groups. Stories in the last part include ‘Enchantment in the Garden’ and the World War Two set ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. Whilst I haven’t read most of this section I can see that the illustrations continue to be outstanding.
Theoretically this book should be able to last from nursery to teenage years, (or beyond). Practically this may not be the case unless it is kept out of reach of toddlers. Whilst encouraging my daughter to look after her books and toys I don’t feel that this is best done by keeping them out of reach and this has resulted in some pages being ‘coloured in’ in thick black crayon. It’s a bit of a shame, but it’s only the early pages and cover and it has too many good stories and pages left in it to be recycled just yet. Whether it will still be in good enough condition for my daughter to read when she is old enough for the later stories is open to question. I hope so. I only have one child but I imagine this would be a good book for families with children of different ages to dip into, provided they can manage to share it.
For fans of Shirley Hughes work the main problem with this collection may be that despite its thickness it doesn’t contain all their favourites. Particularly, obviously, as it was printed in the year 2000, work from the last decade is missing, but this may change with later editions. Currently on sale for £12.99 from Amazon I’d say this is well worth it when you consider how much it contains. My little one has certainly had a ton of enjoyment from it and I highly recommend it.
Further details, (from Amazon): Hardcover: 352 pages, Publisher: Bodley Head Children’s Books (5 Oct 2000), Product Dimensions: 25.6 x 22.2 x 3.4 cm.