If you like Blyton: Shirley Hughes

Usually the title of my if you like Blyton posts contain either a book title or a series by an author, but seeing as I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Shirley Hughes I’m just going to recommend her entire output.

As you may have heard, Shirley Hughes sadly died recently, aged 94. This made me want to revisit some of my favourites by her, so when I was at my parents’ house I picked out The Big Alfie Out of Doors book to read.

I had been thinking fondly of the first story, where Alfie and Annie Rose set up a little shop in their garden, selling leaves and acorns and using seeds for money. But of course that is also the book which has the story about Bonting in it. Bonting is a rock Alfie found in the garden one day. Alfie grew so fond of the rock that he gave it a name and it ‘slept’ by his bed in a little box. Alfie’s mum even made some little clothes – and a bathing suit! – for Bonting.

I was so taken by the story of Bonting that I chose my own – a grey stone with a large but smooth v-shaped nick on the top. I don’t actually remember when or where I found my Bonting but I know I kept him for years. He lived in a little basket made out of plastic cross-stitch canvas, it was stitched over in purple wool and I think it had yellow flowers on the side. I never did manage to persuade my mum to make him any clothes, though.

I don’t know what happened to my Bonting in the end. I know I still had him tucked in his basket in a drawer in my early teenage years. I must have thrown him away at some point – something I very much regret now!

But that was the magic of Shirley Hughes. Not just her stories, but also her illustrations, as she did both for her children’s books. I think that they really capture the imaginations of children.

My favourite Shirley Hughes books

It’s hard to choose so I’m just going to name my favourites without putting them into any sort of order.

As I’ve mentioned Alfie above, my other favourites about him (and his sister Annie-Rose) are

  • Alfie Gets in First where he shuts the door on mum when they come back from the shops, and he gets locked inside. Mum tries to talk him through opening the door, Mrs McNally and her Maureen come along to add advice, someone goes for the window cleaner to get his ladder… and then Alfie manages to open the door by himself. I read this to Brodie recently and he got a little bit upset, I think he was worried the longer Alfie was trapped inside.
  • An Evening at Alfie’s where Mrs McNally’s Maureen is baby-sitting and a pipe bursts in the ceiling. Mr McNally comes to the rescue, but not before Alfie and Maureen have been running about with buckets and basins.
  • Alfie’s Feet where Alfie puts his new yellow wellies on the wrong feet.
  • Alfie Gives a Hand where Alfie goes to a friend’s birthday party and ends up looking after a little girl who is feeling very shy.
  • The Big Alfie Out of Doors Book where Alfie makes a shop in the garden, finds (and briefly loses!) Bonting, follows a lost sheep with his Gran and camps in a field with his Dad only to be disturbed in the night by a large, pink, snorting animal.

Another fabulous compendium is Stories by Firelight which contains stories and poems. These are aimed at children a little older than the Alfie books are. Some of my favourites are:

  • Sea Singing which is a rather haunting story about selkies. Selkies are seal-people who can remove their seal-coats and walk on land as humans, but always long to return to the sea. This selkie was trapped on land by a fisherman who took her seal-skin from her. She had children with him, but eventually did leave them to go back to the sea where she already had a seal-husband and children. After that every year on their birthdays presents would be left on a rock by the shore. Presents very like some of the items seen in Morag’s house in the illustrations…

  • A Midwinter Night’s Dream – this story has no words at all, but is presented in a comic-book layout, where you see a boy get out of bed in the night, and then enter strange passageways full of odd creatures.

  • Burning the Tree. I misremembered this as an Alfie story, but it is about a boy called William and his grandpa. William spends a lot of time in Grandpa’s room, hearing stories about his youth, but there’s a mysterious box that Grandpa has never shown him. One day William sneaks a look inside and is disappointed to find it’s just old letters. He feels guilty for snooping, though. When it is time to burn the old Christmas Tree Grandpa throws on the letters too, which surprises William. He admits to having taken a look and Grandpa doesn’t mind, he just says that his memories are in his head and the letters themselves aren’t important.

  • And my sister’s least favourite, both on paper and on tape – Mrs Toomly Stones. This is a poem about an empty house in a neighbourhood, one with an overgrown garden and neglected façade. The children fear the house and believe it to be inhabited by Mrs Toomly Stones.

Other people say it’s empty
By the gate it says ‘to let’
But somewhere on the darkened landing
Or in the hallway (you can bet)
Lurks Mrs Toomly Stones…

I say those are my favourites, but apart from a few other (lovely) poems that’s the whole book!

Hughes’ most famous book is probably Dogger – another of my favourites – about David, who loses his toy dog at a school fete. He spies Dogger on a sale table, and he’s been priced at 5p! (Which aside from the clothes in the illustrations, very much dates this book to the 70s.) You really feel his anguish when he can’t make the lady understand that Dogger belongs to him, and he doesn’t have enough money to buy him back. By the time David has found his older sister Dogger has been bought by a little girl, and his sister has to make a generous offer to get Dogger safely back.

Then there’s Helpers, about three little children who are being looked after by George, a teenaged baby-sitter. This is a simple but amusing story about what the children get up to while George looks after them. They try to be helpful – in the way that only small children can – play games, go to the park, watch some TV… poor George looks quite worn out by the end!

You may also know Shirley Hughes from…

Apart from all her own books, Shirley Hughes also provided ilustrations for a whole raft of other books, including reprints of any famous titles. Some examples include books by Margaret Mahy and Noel Streafeild, The Secret Garden, The Railway Children and the My Naughty Little Sister books.

Why do I recommended Shirley Hughes?

Although she was writing  a few decades later than Blyton, there is still a vintage nostalgia to her works.

The Alfie books (and her others for young children) are full of cosy kitchens and rainy adventures, the simple games that captivate children’s attention and the trials and tribulations of being four years old. Nothing wildly out of the ordinary happens, but Shirley Hughes knew that children can find delight and intrigue in just about everything that goes on around them.

Her stories for older children can still be cosy at times, but bring in more creepy or haunting elements in a really fascinating way. I’ve never read Enchantment in the Garden but having seen it for the first time while researching this post I really want to!

Her illustrations are full of detail, yet you can take them in at a glance and know what’s going on and how it would feel to be in that scene.

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