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Shirley Hughes, Whose Books Depicted Children’s Mini-Dramas, Dies at 94

Shirley Hughes, a British author and illustrator whose picture books about the quotidian dramas and escapades of children entertained and reassured generations of young readers and their parents, died on Friday at her home in West London. She was 94.

Her family announced the death on Twitter.

Ms. Hughes, whose own childhood was circumscribed by World War II, wrote and illustrated more than 70 books for children of all ages, including two novels for young adults.

She was perhaps best known for “Dogger” (1977), in which a boy named Dave loses his beloved stuffed toy when he’s distracted by a school fair and the prospect of an ice cream cone. Drama ensues, relayed in Ms. Hughes’s direct, prosaic sentences. After a couple of mild cliffhangers and an intervention by Dave’s older sister, Dave and Dogger are reunited.

Her most recent book, a seasonal sequel called “Dogger at Christmas,” was published in the fall of 2020, when she was 92.

Ms. Hughes became a beloved figure in England, honored by Queen Elizabeth II and showered with awards. She welcomed interviewers into her home in Notting Hill, where they filmed her wearing clothing she had made herself, her white hair escaping her topknot, as she sat at her drawing board demonstrating with a sure hand how she made her books, of which more than 12 million were sold worldwide.

She spent hours at neighborhood playgrounds, watching the way children moved, stood, ran and played. She was most fascinated by how children’s physicality conveyed emotion — triumph and shyness, fear and sadness, determination and jubilation, intentionally or not. She would return to her drawing board to sketch out her motion studies with quick, impressionistic strokes, to be colored later with gouache.

The stories she illustrated and imagined for her young protagonists — getting locked into the house with all the grown-ups on the other side of the door, delighting in a best chum with a penchant for troublemaking — portray the grand dramas of a child-size world from the perspectives of those who inhabit it.

“The illustrations are deft — realistic yet dreamy,” the novelist Mary Gordon wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1984, assessing three “Alfie” books. “They depict a world of blissfully disheveled kids in catch-as-catch-can clothing.”

Ms. Hughes often expressed concern about the growing pressures on children. “They always have something to do,” Ms. Hughes said in an interview in The London Telegraph in 2017. “It is difficult to protect them from being overstimulated. My whole idea is to slow them down and get them to make a leisurely examination of a picture at their own pace.”

They shouldn’t be pressured to read, she said. “It’s not a competition, though you’d think it was the way some parents go on.”

She firmly believed that children should be allowed to be bored, because, she said, boredom is fertile ground for the imagination and creativity. And she was aghast that books for older readers were not illustrated.

“I can’t bear hearing grown-ups telling children they can’t have picture books any more as they can read!” she wrote for her page on her publisher’s website. “Why remove such a great narrative pleasure?” She included illustrations in all her books, including the novels.

Shirley Hughes was born on July 16, 1927, in West Kirby, a small English town on the Wirral Peninsula near Liverpool. She was the youngest of three daughters of Thomas J. and Kathleen (Dowling) Hughes, who met at a public library after his return from service in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.

Her father was the founder of TJ Hughes, a bargain department store in Liverpool. Shirley was 5 years old when her father, after suffering acute depression and business setbacks, died, reportedly by suicide.

Shirley and her sisters and mother remained on the Wirral during World War II. Through years of rationing, blackouts, bombings and crushing tedium, Shirley and her sisters amused themselves by playing dress-up and putting on theatrical productions, which led Shirley to study costume design at Liverpool Art School, and from there to pursue drawing at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford.

Although she left theater behind early on, Ms. Hughes thought of her picture books as stagecraft. In “Alfie Gets Home First,” for example, she splits the stage, showing the grown-ups on one page, on the outside of a locked door, and Alfie on the other.

Ms. Hughes counted the illustrators Arthur Rackham and E.H. Shepard among her influences, but also Buster Keaton movies and the American comic strips that reached Britain during the war, in which motion and emotion were so graphically on display.

In an article about Ms. Hughes in The Guardian in 2009, the author Philip Pullman argued that she succeeded in conveying those emotions. “Dogger and Alfie are about the tiniest of incidents — down to the stress of putting your shoes on — but these things can be a source of real anxiety for a child,” he wrote. “And I think this is where she is actually better than Shepard. In his heyday working for Punch, there are lots of drawings of exquisite quality” that are achingly sentimental.

“You just don’t get that in Shirley,” Mr. Pullman added. “She is much clearer and sharper, and therefore provides a genuinely warmer version of childhood.”

For Ms. Hughes, the Nazi bombing of English cities and towns in 1940 and 1941 remained visceral memories. Her first novel for young adults, “Hero on a Bicycle,” about a family living just outside Florence, Italy, during World War I, was published in 2012 (2013 in the United States), and she drew upon her own experience in “Whistling in the Dark” (2015), about the wartime experiences of a teenage girl and her family and friends in Liverpool.

In both books, the fathers are absent: In the first, he is off fighting in the Resistance; in the second, he is a war casualty at sea. The Blitz also figures in “Ruby in the Ruins” (2018); in that book, the father returns from war, but so changed that he feels to Ruby like a stranger in the house.

In 2017, Ms. Hughes was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to literature. Her many awards include two Kate Greenaway medals, a prestigious British prize that recognizes children’s book illustration — in 1977 for “Dogger” and in 2003 for “Ella’s Big Chance.”

Ms. Hughes and her architect husband, John Vulliamy, raised three children in their Notting Hill home (television watching was strictly rationed), where they moved in 1954. She had been working as a freelance illustrator when her first book, “Lucy and Tom’s Day,” was published in 1960.

Mr. Vulliamy died in 2007. Ms. Hughes is survived by their daughter, Clara Vulliamy, a children’s author and illustrator; two sons, Ed, a journalist, and Tom, a professor of molecular biology; and a number of grandchildren.

Ms. Hughes said she spent “quite a lot of time” in her later years answering children’s letters. “The spelling may sometimes be a bit dodgy, but they nearly always include a drawing,” she told The Guardian.

“How do you get good at drawing?” or “How do I stop my story going boring in the middle?” they asked, and once, “How do I make it beautiful?”

“I’m still trying to work out the answer to that one,” Ms. Hughes said.

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