Together with Judith Kerr, Shirley Hughes is the person I look to when I want to be reminded of Christmas past. Lucy and Tom’s Christmas in particular feels rather like looking at my own childhood Christmases, laid out in lovely thick gouache.
There have been several other wonderful additions to her festive cannon including a period piece, the Christmas Eve Ghost and last year’s inevitable (but wonderful) Alfie’s Christmas.
What must it be like to experience a real Shirley Hughes Christmas? Luckily I know just the person to ask – her daughter, the illustrator and writer Clara Vuillamy. Clara kindly sat down with Shirley to talk about the Christmas books they love, and the ones they love to share.
A favourite Christmas book from childhood
Shirley Hughes: Although not strictly a Christmas book, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame was one of my favourite books when I was a child.
The scene which most strongly comes to mind when I think of it is when the little field-mice (‘red worsted comforters round their throats’) come caroling, and the Rat and the Mole invite them in for a Christmas feast.
Clara Vuillamy: Not very highbrow, but I’m going to be honest – it was all about the annuals: Blue Peter, the Beano and the Dandy; also Bunty and Twinkle (sorry). A treat eagerly anticipated all year, we were all about the delayed gratification in the old days!
The Christmas book I read to my children
SH: I carried on reading aloud to my children long after they were old enough to read independently, in fact – on occasion – when they were grown up themselves. And what could be more Christmassy than Dickens?
A Christmas Carol always went down well because Scrooge is such an unforgettable character, often recalled at this time of year as an antidote to schmaltz, with a truly generous outcome.
CV: Mum reads aloud superbly well – I remember working our way through Dickens with great fondness. The first chapter of Our Mutual Friend on the night train to Italy springs to mind.
I inherited a love of reading to older children, and wrote about its value and pleasure here (the comments left were fantastic). But for my children when they were children, nothing could beat Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs, for humour, tenderness and beauty.
My favourite Christmas book as an adult reader
SH: At the moment Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my very favourite authors, wonderfully perceptive and very funny. Her description in Human Voices of eight-year-old Annie Astra’s blunt rejection of the snow scene covered with glitter given to her by a schoolmate Dick Dobbs [‘he’s a dirty devil!’) sums up the downside of Christmas.
CV: I associate Christmas with ghost stories, and will return to the fabulous M.R. James this year I think. Perhaps I’ll read ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’ aloud to my family, a captive audience who will be too paralysed with terror (or full of Quality Street) to get away.