I came across a collection of Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books in Waterstones the other day, which brought a smile to my face – as they manage to do every time I see them. Seeing the classics there on the shelf next to The Wind and the Willows and beautifully bound copies of Peter Pan made me wonder about what made these books so successful.
I remember being so captivated by Alfie Gets in First as a child, and to this day have held on to my copy of Alfie’s Feet and another of Shirley Hughes’ titles – Lucy and Tom’s Christmas – which still sit proudly on my bookshelf. But the success of a book wasn’t something I was aware of at that age. I didn’t read and re-read them over and over again because they were so popular – neither was I likely to know whether or not my friends a few doors down from me were enjoying having the same books read to them at night. All I knew is that there was something magical about opening those books and following the words and illustrations through to the end, until I was able to do so all on my own.
Of course, my parents might have known about the success of the books and picked up the copies after hearing good things about them; they might have been urged to buy them through some clever marketing strategy, or they might simply have liked the look of them on the shop shelf – there are many reasons for choosing a title for your child. But it’s what made me so attached to them after they first landed on my lap that mesmerises me. What is it about these books…?
I hardly know the answer – if a straightforward formula existed for ensuring the success of a picture book then the publishing industry would be a very different place. But I thought this article on the Guardian website, from as far back as 2005, got quite close.
In the article, Jane Richards considers not only why her children might enjoy the books so much, but also why she herself still enjoys reading them. As she puts it, Shirley Hughes seems to have ‘an instinctive understanding of the mind of the pre-schooler’:
‘It’s all about the “little things” that dominate their lives. It’s about realising your new wellies are the wrong way round when you’re out splashing in puddles; it’s about getting locked out of the house with your mum when you’ve been shopping and are tired and hungry; it’s about hearing a dripping from the attic that turns out to be a burst pipe when Mrs MacNally’s Maureen from over the road is babysitting for you; and it’s about going to a birthday party for the first time without your mum.’
I couldn’t have worded it better. Books are there to not only inspire, teach and nurture a child’s imagination, but also to help them understand the world immediately around them. And I think the latter is what Hughes does best. As I grew older, I held on to those books, and they were always there to remind me of the ‘little things’, even when I thought I understood everything so well.
Thinking about it got me wondering about the pressure put on publishers to compete with the distraction of new technology nowadays. At a time where the industry is adapting and experimenting, it might be more important than ever not to lose sight of the fact that the simplest stories are sometimes the most memorable.