26/05/2012 22:53 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Author Shirley Hughes: 'When Children Can Take A Leisurely Look At A Picture Book, It Stays With Them Forever'

Alfie by Shirley Hughes

The bedtime story, that cosy interlude between the bustle of the day and the quiet of the night, is a cherished ritual. The opportunity to cuddle up and enjoy a book with a pyjama-clad child is one of the treats of family life.

Yet even the most dedicated parent will admit to a sinking feeling on being presented with a frankly rubbish book for the thousandth time. Those children's books which the adult can enjoy as much as the child are a god-send. As a mother of three I have my own list – and many of them are written by the venerable author and illustrator Shirley Hughes.

Since her first story was published in 1960 Hughes has written over 70 books (which have sold over 12 million copies and won numerous awards), and illustrated many more. Her best-loved character, Alfie celebrated his 30th birthday last year, despite remaining steadfastly four years old.

Hughes has just written her first novel, Hero on a Bicycle, aimed at a ten plus readership. Set in Florence at the end of the Second World War it is a thriller inspired by her own travels in the city soon after that time. She was 19 then. She is now 84.

Author Shirley Hughes Rex

It is a book she always intended to write, but it certainly isn't to be her swansong. "Oh no," she says, aghast at the very idea of retirement, "I absolutely love it. I work every morning from 9.30 until lunchtime and then I knock off and potter about."

She is currently working on Alfie's Christmas which will appear next year. "There are points in the day when it all gets a little tense, as things do at Christmas," she reveals.

The resulting tale will doubtless be read to small children by parents who themselves grew up with Hughes' meticulously observed vignettes of family life.


As with other very good children's authors, she makes her work somehow timeless. The triumphs and trials experienced by her characters are as relevant today as they were a generation ago.


This, she believes, is because while life changes, the world of a small child is much as it ever was. "I get my story lines from the every day. Alfie is never going to fly off in a space rocket. He is rooted to reality," says Hughes. "Getting your boots on the right feet, going to a party on your own, losing a teddy, these are big challenges for a small child."

She hopes that her stories will not only resonate with a child's experiences, but also introduce the pleasures of reading and, crucially, of looking.


It is wonderful when children can take a slow and leisurely look at a picture book. They can go at their pace. It is like a little theatre. It stays with them forever. There is so little time in school to learn how to look but it develops a whole visual imagination.


For Hughes this means enjoying not only the treasures of an art gallery but also those outside every home. "Alfie lives in a little house in London. It is fabulously beautiful out there. There is the sky, the moon, the leaves, the trees. You are always trying to get children to look out."

She considers this especially important in a modern child's life. "Children's lives have hotted up. They are battered by fast moving electronics. They are so busy at school, have endless activities and then they switch on the screens. There is never any time to be bored," she says. "I do think it's important to let them slow down."

Hughes credits the endless hours of "mooching around" of her own childhood with ultimately firing her creativity. "I was always drawing to fill in time. I made up stories, wrote them down, drew." The habit of filling sketch books was formed and has stayed for life.

Hughes is certainly not in the business of knocking modern children, their parents or their technology though. She does not have a computer, but she is very excited about the website accompanying her new book with all sorts of background and images. She enlisted the help of her grandson Jack, a student at Oxford, to create it.

"There has never been an ideal time to be a child," she says. "I grew up during the Second World War. We were aware that the adults were very up against it. We all had to shape up and get on with it."

As well as the "endless queues" and the air raid shelters, Hughes has vivid memories of being read to. "I had two older sisters so I was always listening to a story that was too old for me. It was probably very good."

She loved Edward Ardizzone's Tim stories, Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows. They went on to be enjoyed by her own three children - now grown up and themselves parents to her seven grandchildren – alongside other favourites including Paddington, Milly-Molly-Mandy and Thomas the Tank Engine.

The pleasure is clear in Hughes' voice as she recalls both the books and the act of reading them with her young family. "Having little children is such a fleeting time. It is tiring but it is such a pleasure," she states. "There are so many happy times, every day things, you remember later. So it is wonderful that there will always be people who day after day look forward to coming home and sitting down with a small child and a book."

Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes (Walker Books, £9.99).
For more information about Shirley Hughes and her books see