Every now and again I am asked about ways to inspire the love of reading in energetic toddlers when settling down with a book is the last thing they want to do and keeping their attention focused is a challenge even at bedtime reading sessions. The way to approach this is to find books they would love in a way that settling down to read these would be seen as a treat, rather than reading them what you think they should love.
I learned this through trial and error, having read to my toddler what I thought was right for him. To my dismay little son was not fan of fairy tales, less than enthusiastic about poetry, did not particularly like fantasy stories (gnomes, fairies and wizards). I was wrecking my brain as to ‘why not’ as I grew up loving all of the above. Then through some accidental discoveries 3 authors found their way into our home library and turned it all around. Son was finally engaging: not just listening but hearing, not just looking at but seeing. The ‘mighty 3’ (in no particular order) are Shirley Hughes, Oliver Jeffers and Stephen Michael King (click here to read on his success). All of them are primarily illustrators who also write and illustrate their own books. It is those books both authored and illustrated that had the greatest impact and were his biggest love. I hope they hit the spot for some other difficult-to-read-to toddlers out there and will share my thoughts on these in a few separate posts beginning with Shirley Hughes.
Shirley Hughes’ career in children’s literature has been most prolific, she illustrated more than two hundred books and has written and illustrated about fifty of her own. Her books sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. In 2017 she has been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to children’s literature. Over 90 years old today Shirley Hughes is still working; rumour has it that she plans a new book to be published later this year.
Her books have been awarded too many accolades to list here. She has been the recipient of Kate Greenaway Medal twice for Dogger (1977) and Ella’s Big Chance (2003) which she both written and illustrated. She was also a three-time Kate Greenaway Award runner up for Flutes and Cymbals: Poetry for the Young (1968), for Helpers (1975) and for The Lion and the Unicorn (1998). In 2007, for the 50th anniversary of Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) posted online the information about all of the winning works between 1955 and 2005 and conducted a poll of public votes to identify the nation’s favourite Kate Greenaway Medalist. The public voted for books from the professional panel’s shortlist of ten authors, picked from the 53 winning works. Shirley Hughes’ Dogger has won the public’s vote, outnumbering (by just less than 1%) Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum (1978). Shirley Hughes was then named the “50-year Greenaway of Greenaways”.
I didn’t know anything about Shirley Hughes until my son was born. Growing up in the Soviet Union we were not exposed to her books. It was by mere accident that one day I brought home this “All about Alfie” 32-page picture book, picked up at a discount book store in downtown Sydney:
From that day on son could not get enough of Alfie so I’ve researched other editions of Shirley Hughes’ stories and found two fabulous large anthologies, over 530 pages between them (bottom of the pile in the picture below). Catering for readers of various ages from very young to older readers, it can be enjoyed for quite while. We have read (and re-read and re-read again some of it) for several years to come. A few of the award-winning and notable stories mentioned above (Dogger, The Lion and the Unicorn, poetry for the young readers) are included in this large Shirley Hughes Collection.
Most of Hughes stories celebrate ordinary life and simple down-to-earth experiences as seen through a child’s eyes. Going to the park, helping Mum, attending birthday parties, having fun at school fairs and play grounds, going away on family holidays, making friends, caring for pets, learning new things about the world, experiencing new emotions or even just waiting for traffic lights to turn green while holding Mum’s hand. In an adult’s world these are either insignificant or normal experiences in the ordinary course of life, possibly not worthy of books being written about them. But a young child’s world is different of course, everything is exciting, not one little thing goes unnoticed, not a moment is slipping away unacknowledged, most things are seen and felt for the first few times in their lives and each such time is filled with joy. Shirley Hughes understands this worldview as if it was still hers (it probably is) and has mastered capturing it in her stories and pictures. She sees and depicts what a child sees and this gives her books the authenticity that has a universal appeal to young readers.
This appeal has been widely acknowledged. The Times mused that “Shirley Hughes never fails to inspire recognition in toddlers…She is an artist who represents ordinary life in a way that makes adults and children alike fall in love with it… No one can match her in the simple mastery of both words and pictures.” The Guardian agrees that “Her literary and illustrated world is one that children love”. My son and I certainly agree and have no doubt that any toddler who gets exposed to Shirley Hughes books will feel the same.
Here is a selection of images from the 2 Treasury books mentioned above to kick start your own celebration of the ordinary: