because we didn’t have the telly. We listened to children’s hour on the radio with Uncle Mac.’

Another early influence was the narrative painting at the Walker Art Gallery, such as When Did You Last See Your Father? ‘The Royalists were the goodies. You knew very well that dad was hiding in a passage somewhere, with the little boy having to face the Puritans. Or The Fisherman’s Wife looking sadly out the window and the man hasn’t returned with the fleet. I grew up with pictures that told stories. I loved those.’ (She advocates looking at one or two pictures when you take children to a gallery, and then keeping the postcards on the fridge.)

Shirley studied fashion drawing at Liverpool Art School, with other girls who were ‘just waiting for that engagement ring on the finger’ and with demobbed servicemen doing commercial art, with extraordinary skill. ‘They were slick as hell’.

She remembers the misery of going to hops. ‘When there was a dance the boys went round one way and the girls went round the other and when the music stopped they danced with the person opposite. There was a great shuffling and shouldering aside opposite Joan Bretherton. But,’ she says with a humorous grimace, ‘nobody was shouldering in towards Shirley Hughes.’ Then she mimes a bit of disco dancing: ‘It was such a good idea when everyone was allowed to just get up and go like this’.

At the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford (‘a much worse art school than Liverpool’), she learnt lithography and, fortunately, how to do colour separations, which turned out to be her passport to publication, after trailing her portfolio round the offices of publishers. ‘People would turn your folder over like this [turning her head away, and miming turning pages over] while talking to their secretaries, and tell you to leave your name and number.’

Now, her illustrations draw on a mental repertoire compiled in later years by filling sketchbooks with observations of how children look and stand and move. And her proudest achievement is having taught children to look. ‘I want children to go leisurely through my books, to scrutinise. To turn back and look back, to slow down.


To wander round the image. And when they have learnt to look, make sure it doesn’t get lost in the pressure to learn to read.’

It is important to her to use the form of the book. ‘With a double page spread you have to either pretend it doesn’t exist or use it in some way – my most successful use was for Alfie Gets in First. So that the not-yet-reader can see ahead of the text how Alfie is solving the problem. I love the idea of the gutter if you can use it.’

When I ask Shirley what the hardest thing has been for her about lockdown, it seemed it was not being alone. Solitude is not new to her. She remembers the loneliness of living in a bedsit when she first came to London, and was trying to make a career. She says instead: Not being able to see the great-grandchildren, both still under two: the ‘amazingly determined’ Lena, and Gabriel ‘who lies about giggling’. But then she adds: ‘And everybody not being able to move about as they like. Even if I don’t do it. If only everyone else could. It’s very hard on the young.

Her feeling for other people’s plight during the pandemic has been conspicuous throughout our conversation. ‘It’s not so bad for me,’ she says. And she asks me how it has all been for my family. Her lifetime’s concern for others has also manifested itself in topical actions. She has recently added her name to a petition expressing love and support for trans people, and to another decrying the denial of free school meals for needy children in the holidays.

As we chat, the postman on the path next door calls ‘Nothing today!’, like a cheery character out of one of Shirley’s books, and I like the world more, seeing it through her eyes.

Like many of us, Shirley is not sure yet how her own Christmas will be spent, but says with confidence: ‘Clara [her daughter] will think of something.’ Meanwhile Dogger’s Christmas is the one we all hope we can have.

Dogger’s Christmas is published by Bodley Head, 978-1782300809, £12.99 hbk.

Nicolette Jones, writer, literary critic and broadcaster, has been the children’s books reviewer of the Sunday Times for more than two decades.

A magical,

seasonal sequel to the beloved Dogger

Te very special story of one boy and his favourite toy

T i

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