Friday, 6 December 2013

A Shirley Hughes Kind Of Christmas by Pippa Goodhart


Shirley Hughes writes and illustrates the very best children’s picture books, and has done so for a long time.  She has no need for aliens or angels or burps or underpants or even Santa on his sleigh to draw you into her books.  She recognises the very real drama and passions and humour to be found in the everyday life of an ordinary small child.  We know those dramas from our own lives, so her stories resonate with us all, and that’s why books such as ‘Dogger’ and ‘Aflie Gets In First’ have become true classics. 
Working in a bookshop in the 1980s I had the perk of sometimes keeping (you’re supposed to ‘dispose of’, but there’s nothing to stop you disposing of them to yourself!) faulty books once the title page had been ripped out to be sent back to the publisher.  That is how I got my bound upside-down copy of Lucy And Tom’s Christmas. 

That book has been treasure brought out for my own three daughters every Christmas throughout their childhoods, and I’ve just enjoyed reading and looking at it yet again.  It reflects, and maybe even moulded, the family Christmases of my childhood and of my children’s childhoods – stirring the pudding and making wishes, snipping and gluing and colouring to make decorations and cards, choosing just the right present for Mum and Dad, Granny and Grandpa, hiding those presents, letters written to Father Christmas and sent up the chimney, carol singers, baking, the Sally Army band playing carols, decorating the tree, putting out parcels, hanging stockings, opening stockings, going to church in the show, relatives (and old Mrs Barlow who lives all by herself) for a big lunch, present unwrapping

… and then the thing that absolutely strikes a chord with any young family, when a tearful Tom has had too much and is ‘rather cross’ and needs to go out for a dark walk down the street with Grandpa, ‘just the two of them’.  In our family such a walk or other form of removal to calm down is known as ‘dehorribalising’! 
Then Tom goes home and the tree is lit, and Christmas feels complete and just right.  
So, what about the new book, Alfie’s Christmas?  Could it possibly be as good as Lucy And Tom’s one?  Well clever clever Shirley Hughes has managed to make it different from that beloved earlier Christmas book, but still exactly, Chrismassily, right.  Alfie is a distinct character, of course, so it’s lovely to see important neighbours such as the MacNallys being included.  And Annie-Rose has her own storyline.  But comparing the two books also brings home that our Christmases have changed in subtle ways.  The importance of family and food, the anticipation of giving and receiving presents much the same. 

But we don’t wait until Christmas Day to light the tree these days.  Now the tree is decorated in the run-up to Christmas and put in the front window for all to enjoy. We tend to post a letter to Father Christmas rather than send it up the chimney.  We’ve got Dad, and even Grandpa, in the kitchen now! 
It is a lovely book, and I urge you to watch this youtube of Shirley talking about it, and drawing it.  
Do you have a favourite Christmas book without which Christmas isn't really Christmas?  Please tell...!  And Happy Christmas! 

21 comments:

  1. Oh my children and I loved Lucy and Tom's Christmas My daughter is Lucy, and her little brother Billy, always demanded that be called Tom at Christmas!

    I've kept the book and always re read it at this time of year...and I'm delighted to hear that there's an Alfie's Christmas.I shall be buying that for myself!

    My other Christmas classic is "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey ", movingly written by Susan Wojciechowski and superbly illustrated by P.J. Lynch .

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    1. Ah, I love 'The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey' too - a real weepy one, and beautifully illustrated. I think there's a film of it? I hope you have a happy Lucy and Tom and Alfie-like Christmas, Bridget!

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  2. Lovely blog and wonderful to hear there's a new Alfie Christmas book! My daughter LOVES Alfie and spontaneously hugs the books.

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    1. Thank you, Teresa. My middle daughter used to sleep with her favourite books, and I've got a photograph of her fast asleep in an embrace with Dick King Smith's book of Animal Stories!

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    2. Our oldest grandson aged five, teetering on the ladder to the upper bunk with six books in one hand and half-holding on with the other: 'But Grandad, I *need* these books.'

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  3. I've always secretly wanted to find a reason not to like Shirley Hughes work, in many ways it's so 'not my sort of thing', but her vision is so true and resonant with my childhood, and the draughtsmanship so excellent that I just have to smile and accept that she is brilliant, whether I want to or not ;-) rrrrespect. .

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    1. She's such a true observer of life, isn't she? I feel as if she understands my life so well that she's actually a part of the family, if that makes any sense!

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  4. A publisher told me recently that this genre of story was 'too quiet' for modern-day children. She wanted the jokes, the aliens, the punchline. Yet Shirley Hughes' work gets so much to the heart of life, even if it is a nostalgic framework. Long may she continue to produce her own brand of beautifully-judged storybooks.

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    1. Has that publisher never shared a 'quiet' picture book with a small child and experienced its magic, I wonder? There's room for different moods of book, and quietness that goes with thoughtfulness and time to recognise and reflect is important.

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  5. Shirley writes of family and of love. If that goes out of style, then heaven help us all!

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    1. Amen to that, Malachy! Your Dancing Tiger is another prime example of that combo.

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  6. We always loved The Bears' Christmas (a Berenstain Bears book) and, of course, Dr Seuss's How the Grinch stole Christmas. We also have an old, beautifully illustrated copy of The Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore which has dog-eared pages and bits of sticky tape holding it together.

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    1. Happy memories! Yes, what IS the age at which Sellotape suddenly turns ginger and brittle? I think it's about twenty years, so some of my own children's favourites are falling apart anew now.

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  7. One of the many lovely things about the Alfie books (and all Shirley Hughes work) is the messiness. I think she was the first to show toys under tables and broken biscuits on them. And, oh my goodness, these books are certainly not too quiet for kids. So much happens both in the illustrations and the story! Nice blog, I just found it!

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    1. Glad you like the blog, Lucy! Er, do you have a brother called Tom....?! Yes, you're quite right about the well observed mess of real family life!

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  8. What a Christmassily wonderful post. I'm so pleased that your upside-down Lucy and Tom's Christmas has been treasured, and that Alfie's Christmas hits the right spot too. I wonder if me and my brothers had to be 'dehorribalised' when we were small, and that's why those scenes are so convincing?
    I shall show this to Mum; she will be very chuffed with the comments too, and to know that she is part of the family, and she will laugh to hear from her reluctant fan!

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    1. Ah! A very happy Christmas to Shirley from the Picture Book Den and all who sail in her! And to you too, of course.

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  9. When my children were small I enjoyed sharing 'Lucy and Tom's Christmas', although I felt very aware it was an idealised, traditionally English view of how I felt Christmas should be (including the tired grumpiness, which I adored). I used to tell myself not to worry that our Christmas never went the way of Lucy and Tom's Christmas - but I wished it would!

    Another Christmas book I enjoyed reading to the children, and it still makes me smile, is 'Jesus' Christmas Party' by Nicholas Allan. Such a funny Nativity story, with a poignant ending.

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    1. I think that we often agonise over Christmas or birthday parties etc not being the ideal we'd like, and the relief in growing-up is when you realise that it really doesn't matter, and something lesser can be good enough and just as fun. Our Christmas this year has to be reinvented because our junior doctor daughter will be on call in a big hospital for 13 hours on Christmas Day, so Boxing Day will become the main event ... and I think it's going to be fun to shake things up a bit. Enjoy your Christmas in whatever form it takes, Paeony!

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  10. I remember reading Lucy and Tom's Christmas as a child. We also love Mog's Christmas which was first published in 1976. The traditions are still the same and the illustrations are beautiful.

    Moira's comment about the 'quiet' picture books interested me. With our increasingly busy, hectic lives surely we need quieter picture books as a balance. If we are only read fast paced, action packed picture books to our children they will never learn to appreciate and enjoy the quieter, slower paced ones. There is a place for action packed stories but not at the expense of the ones that help us relax. Alfie and Katie Morag are enjoyed by us just as much as aliens!

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  11. We've just unpacked the Christmas decs. The annual rediscovery of much-mended old Christmas books included barrel-loads of brittle, ginger sellotape. I agree, Pippa - about 20 years!

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