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Small Characters, Big Worlds, and Intertextual Reading

Shirley Hughes’ Lucy and Tom Series
Petits personnages, grands mondes et lecture intertextuelle : la série Lucy and Tom de Shirley Hughes
Margaret Mackey


Shirley Hughes a publié six albums centrés sur Lucy et Tom, deux jeunes sœur et frère d’une famille anglaise, entre 1960 et 1987. L’ensemble de ces titres remplit une condition majeure pour être une série : les histoires sont liées et présentent les mêmes personnages. Mais les livres ne suivent pas le type de schéma de sérialité auquel nous nous attendons ordinairement : ils ne se suivent pas dans une suite prévisible, et ils n’abandonnent pas non plus la suite pour la réitération et la répétition d’une temporalité narrative immuable. Cet article étudie comment ces livres se rapportent les uns aux autres en termes d’occupation d’un « grand monde » qui déborde les limites d’un seul titre. Il explore leur propriété d’exister « à côté » l’un de l’autre plutôt qu’« avant », « après » ou « encore ». Enfin, il examine ce que ces livres offrent aux interprètes novices qui s’y livrent.

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Texte intégral

Illustration 1: Lucy and Tom series, Shirley Hughes, various covers.

1Lucy and Tom are two young siblings who live a very ordinary life. Their home is a terraced London house; they play together, mostly harmoniously; occasionally, they get together with their grandparents. Lucy starts school. Tom starts nursery. Lucy has a friend Jane; Tom’s two friends are James and Sam. Big events include Christmas and a summer trip to the seaside. Smaller activities involve an outing to a local park or a trip to the supermarket. Their cat’s name is Mopsa.

  • 1 Shane Denson, “‘To be continued…’: Seriality and Serialization in Interdisciplinary Perspective”, J (...)

2Many young readers and listeners of the six books about Lucy and Tom are riveted by these mundane goings-on. No doubt they are thrilled to see the small activities and priorities of their own lives represented so convincingly in these pages. But another source of appeal is that the appearance of these two children in series format permits very young interpreters to develop intertextual awareness and a depth of expertise in the unassuming trappings of Lucy and Tom’s world. At the same time as their knowledge of this storyworld flourishes, they also cultivate an increasing awareness of the elements of “repetition and variation” that Shane Denson calls “the basic stuff of seriality”1 They learn about overlapping one reading on top of another, about the importance of noticing connections between one book and another, and about the appeal of moving between figure and ground in different illustrations as perspectives change on this small lifeworld.

3Lucy and Tom’s Day was Shirley Hughes’ first published picturebook, published by Victor Gollancz in 1960. There was a lapse of thirteen years before the appearance of Lucy and Tom Go to School in 1973. Four more books were published over the next fourteen years: Lucy and Tom at the Seaside (1976), Lucy and Tom’s Christmas (1981), Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c. (1984), and Lucy and Tom’s 1.2.3. (1987). All these books came from Gollancz, and they were republished in the conventional way as Picture Puffin paperbacks. Today, Penguin releases them as Red Fox paperbacks with refreshed covers and slightly altered titles. Lucy and Tom’s Day is effectively relegated to history, but the remaining five books are newly available as follows: Lucy and Tom: At the Seaside (2015), Lucy and Tom: At Christmas (2015), Lucy and Tom: At School (2016), Lucy and Tom: From A to Z (2018), and Lucy and Tom: From One to Ten (2018). In this article, I refer to all six books, using the initial titles and covers since they conform most closely to Hughes’ original intent.

  • 2 Victor Watson, Reading Series Fiction, London, Routledge Falmer, 2000, p. 6.
  • 3 Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, “Seriality in Picturebooks”, in: Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (ed.), Th (...)

4In many ways, the stories of Lucy and Tom comprise a series, a term defined by Victor Watson as “a sequence of related stories about the same groups of characters, usually by the same author.”2 Yet the word “sequence” does not entirely encompass the relationship of the books to each other. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer distinguishes between series books in which characters “do not grow up or change in a significant way” and those in which “characters undergo a developmental process.”3 Lucy and Tom do not fit into this tidy binary. Some events in the books involve chronological development. Some are repetitive. The world that is catalogued in the alphabet book could be described as one of stasis, but the narrative of the number book includes a specific event, Granny’s birthday.

5The books are a sequence in the sense that they were published in a particular order, but, though they are undoubtedly related to each other and thus a series, their main connections are not chronologically consistent (they are neither purely developmental nor simply reiterative), and thus “seriality” is not the most useful concept to apply. The links between the different titles invite spatial rather than chronological coherence; rather than reflecting a “before and after” or an “again” perspective, they make more sense when considered as “beside.” A different and more general categorization may therefore be more precise: the idea of textual “big worlds.”

6In 2009, I defined a big world very simply as “a fiction that extends beyond the limits of one text”4. Textual big worlds are commonplace in contemporary culture, and they frequently cross media boundaries: for example, a series of books may become a sequence of films, and/or engender a variety of associated games, websites, and consumables. Lucy and Tom occupy a big world by the terms of my definition, spilling across the limits of any single title, but it is striking that their adventures are mainly confined to print. A few YouTube videos present readings of the books, but these are simply oral renditions of the published stories, with the illustrations unadapted, respectfully presenting the static pages of the books. Lucy and Tom’s website presence is largely confined to links for purchasing the printed books. A British Library site pays homage to the constructed nature of the books by displaying the rough dummy pages for Lucy and Tom’s Day.5 Beyond the YouTube videos, so deferential to book culture, I could find no branching out into other formats.

7So Lucy and Tom’s orthodox English childhood is a literary phenomenon only, a pure example of a modest print series. Yet this little set of books conveys a rich sense of a complex world using only words and images, largely on paper, that present very small and mostly unexciting events. Even the passage of the 27 years between the first and last publication in the series has very muted impact on the stories themselves. The world that appears in all the books makes a coherent impact on readers and, because it is a world explored by the youthful bodies of Lucy and Tom, it is a knowable space for many young readers, one they can imagine traversing themselves. Even young readers have a sense of moving in and out of worlds, some of which are “bigger” than others.

  • 6 Shirley Hughes, A Life Drawing: Recollections of an Illustrator, London, The Bodley Head, 2002, p.  (...)
  • 7 Ibid., p. 138.
  • 8 Ibid.

8In her illustrated memoir, A Life Drawing, Shirley Hughes tells how she was invited “out of the blue” to consider creating a picturebook for young children, something she had never tried before, though she had illustrated many children’s books by other authors. “I went back to an idea I had worked on years before of a very simple book about two small children going through an ordinary day.”6 Gollancz told her she could have “four full-colour double-page spreads. The rest (it was thirty-two pages) would have to be black and white line alternated with separated colour to save on production costs.”7 The firm did not have a design department, and Hughes claims they “lashed out recklessly on a set square and ruler”8 so that she and her editor could design the pages.

9Perhaps as a consequence of that initial freedom with the set square (though I suspect it comes from a much deeper source), Hughes has a genius for page design that augments but is not the same as her gift for illustration and for rendering character in visual form. The Lucy and Tom books operate on varying narrative and design bases. Lucy and Tom’s Day is an iterative book, telling of events that happen over and over again. Lucy and Tom Go to School describes distinctively singular occasions: Lucy starts school and Tom begins going to a nursery class. Lucy and Tom at the Seaside and Lucy and Tom’s Christmas present something of a blend, in that the one-off seaside visit or the particular Christmas holds the potential to be repeated in very similar terms in the future. Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c. is a concept book that draws its details from the repetitions of a rich daily life. Lucy and Tom’s 1.2.3. is another blend, merging the concept of numbers with a narrative of a normal, repeatable day that is marked out as singular by being Granny’s birthday – another annual marker. But more than anything else, the alphabet and the number books place Lucy and Tom’s small and confined life-world into the context of what may very precisely be called a “bigger” world, the institution of the alphabet or our system of counting.

10Only two markers of permanent change guide readers in any kind of sequencing activity: Tom’s graduation from a cot to a green bed between the first and second titles, and the beginning of school for Lucy and nursery for Tom. Using these signposts, we may ascertain from the change of bed that Lucy and Tom’s Day predates all the other titles, and from references to nursery school that Lucy and Tom Go to School comes before Lucy and Tom’s Christmas and Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c. The seaside book and the counting book present no indicators of before or after, and they float free from even the vestigial chronology of the other stories.

Elements at work

11Creating a big world from very detailed focus on the everyday lives of young children who do not range very far from home calls for a very precise toolkit. Hughes draws on a number of ingredients, some of form and some of content, to make this unlikely synergy work.


  • 9 Herbert Grabes, “Encountering people through literature”, The Yearbook of Research in English and A (...)
  • 10 Ibid., p. 136.

12Very young readers have a lot to learn about reading fiction, and the comfortable, predictable, and repetitive world of Lucy and Tom gives them experience to grow on. Take the very basic notion that a fictional narrative almost certainly features characters. Although Lucy and Tom may not represent exemplars of exciting characterization to adults, for newcomers to the world of realistic fiction, their ordinariness may make them compelling. Herbert Grabes asks an important question about “how it is possible that such artificial creations [as character constructs] can become such powerful illusions.”9 He reminds us that “a fictional story-world [is] peopled by fictional characters that exist and act and interact both with bodies and with minds.”10

13Lucy and Tom certainly take on the world “both with bodies and with minds”: even in the simple world of these stories, learning readers can use the information supplied by their own bodies and minds to make sense of the illustrations and the words. These new interpreters learn that the “artificial creations” of these described and painted children can be brought to life in their own minds through the vivification available from their own lived experiences. As young readers move from one book to another, seriality is an important component in their development of a compiled understanding of how character is both created and expressed in artistic modes.

Interaction of words and pictures

14In a picturebook, words and images exist in a strong relationship to each other. They may support, refine, enhance, or contradict each other, but they work jointly to create meaning. Readers of the Lucy and Tom books are carefully taught that this relationship is significant. Lucy and Tom Go to School supplies many instances where the connection between words and image is explicitly helpful. On the first day of school, we see crowds of children and parents heading for the school doors. The picture takes up nearly all the recto (or right-hand page) and spills over onto about half of the left-hand page, the verso. Lucy and Tom, obeying visual conventions, are on the left-hand edge of the picture, moving into the unknown. Lucy’s friend Jane is in the middle of the illustration; the words tell us how to find her: “She was peeping out from behind her mother and holding on to her coat.” Similarly, the picture of playtime in the schoolyard fills something more than a page and a half, extending from the full verso onto the recto. The text describes some of the activities in the playground and points out that it was very noisy. It tells us, “Jane had an apple. She gave Lucy a bite and they had a quiet game in a corner.” With this clue, we can readily locate Lucy and Jane on the far right of the illustration, ignoring the other children as they focus on each other. Rather than moving from left to right, into new adventures, they have sequestered themselves in the smallest, safest corner they can find, on the edge of the page, and are looking only at each other.

15These interactions between word and image are very basic, but they invite young interpreters to generate inferences about Lucy and Jane’s emotional state in these familiar but intimidating surroundings, using what the words say, what the images present, and what the life experience of the child readers can contribute.


16Let us follow one example of a simple but resonant image that appears in several books: Lucy and Tom’s front gate. We first see it on the opening page of Lucy and Tom Go to School: they are on the domestic side, looking out over it onto the street, and it very much represents a limit to the familiar world of home, a barrier that they will both cross to go to their different schools. In Lucy and Tom’s Christmas, we see a profile view of the small front garden with the gateposts covered in snow and the gate invisible between them. If we have read other Lucy and Tom books, we know what the concealed gate looks like (and so do Lucy and Tom, of course, because in this picture they can look straight at it). Later, we see Tom and Grandpa out for a walk after the excitements of Christmas day make Tom tired and cross. They are passing another gate, but knowledgeable readers will know this is a different house because the design of the gate is not right. This information is not consequential at one level but the feeling of holding expert knowledge matters, especially to a novice book consumer.

17Lucy and Tom’s 1.2.3. offers a street-side perspective on the gate, with Lucy and Tom inside the garden looking out. The gate and the brick wall are familiar from other appearances. On the following opening, we gain more formal information about their home; we learn that it is Number 7, the end house in a terraced row. Two illustrations on this page show Lucy and Tom at the gate, waiting for and then waving to the postman.

18In Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c., the gate takes on an information-bearing role. A double-page opening tells us that H is for homes and houses and presents nine panels of differing size that feature a variety of residences. “Can you see where Lucy and Tom live?” inquires the text, without supplying any further hints. Sharp eyes will spot the giveaway at the very bottom of the recto: Lucy and Tom at their gate, waving, with their parents standing in the doorway of the house. For once, Lucy is on the street side of the gate, though Tom remains in the garden. Perhaps she has stepped out to make sure of attracting our attention. The children’s wave to readers, breaking the fourth wall, is a hint that the address of this book is not narrative. Unlike all the other five, it does not tell a story, but rather provides something closer to a Lucy and Tom handbook, organized in alphabetical terms.

19Hughes does not explain the large delays in this publication cycle, and it seems possible that the time lapses between titles simply reflect that she was busy doing other work. The world of the books is surprisingly coherent, given the gaps in production. Some elements of the stories are frozen in a time-warp, rather than simply and deliberately stable. Lucy and Tom’s highly gendered play in Lucy and Tom’s Day provides one such example. Tom’s Indian head-dress in Lucy and Tom’s Christmas was clearly an acceptable gift in 1981, but an alert and sensitive social observer like Hughes might well have avoided it in a later decade. Given the degree of cultural change in the span of nearly three decades that the books traverse, there could be much more of this kind of discrepancy than is evident; Hughes’ intent focus on the small-scale lives of the children stands her in good stead in this regard.


20Even small children can recognize moments of change in their lives. For example, many children know that being promoted from a crib to a bed is a rite of passage. In Lucy and Tom’s Day, Tom is still in a cot; by the time of Lucy and Tom Go to School, he has been promoted to a green toddler bed that remains his for the rest of the series. Lucy has already made this important shift, and her bed is the same in every book. No mention is made of this marker of Tom’s elevation from babyhood to boyhood, but any attentive child exploring the illustrations will take due account of its significance.

  • 11 Sally Williams, “Quick on the draw; don’t write off Shirley Hughes as the cosy gran of kids’ fictio (...)

21Other changes in the story world arise more externally as a result of the longevity of the series. Both the schoolyard and the park in Lucy and Tom’s Day are entirely peopled by white children. The schoolyard in Lucy and Tom Go to School shows the same range of playtime activities, but the population is much more multiethnic and multicultural. Sally Williams says Hughes had to push for this change as it ruined “any chance of South African sales.”11 Whatever the impact on sales, the same transformation takes place in the playground when Lucy and Tom’s Day is compared to Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c. In this case, a further change will seem logical to contemporary children; the park in the later book is equipped with a lavish array of playground apparatus, entirely absent from the 1960 title, where children amuse themselves with balls, wagons, doll prams, and other entertainments brought from home.

22It is worth noting that many of these changes are environmental rather than core to the inner experience of the children involved. The forceful child energy expressed in both schoolyard and playground images is as dynamic in the earlier book as in the later ones, and it is this fundamental experience of childhood that new readers will recognize as they learn to draw on their own bodily and mental experience of that vitality to make connections with the words and images on the page. Nevertheless, the multiracial urban setting reflects contemporary childhood more validly, and the change highlights the historical qualities of the 1960 title.

Cultural background

23Hughes is frequently labelled as English, but the appeal of her stories is more general. Of these books, Lucy and Tom at the Seaside is the most culturally specific. The train trip to the coast, the crowded beach, the donkey rides, even the availability of ice cream, all these ingredients speak to a certain kind of seaside experience. Overall, it is probably fairer to consider these books as western rather than particular to a single nationality. Beyond the universality of childish emotional investments in certain kinds of cultural experience, the urban background is recognizable to children in many countries. One consequence of the time lapse between 1960 and 1987 is that Lucy and Tom’s London home has undoubtedly appreciated in value to a surreal degree, but this is not cultural information of any interest to child readers. The dynamics expressed in family settings and on the playground, schoolyard, and street represent familiar forces to an international audience. The significance of a granny’s birthday is apparent to children in any culture that celebrates birthdays. Hughes’ general ethos is inclusive.

  • 12 Virginia Lowe, “‘Don’t Tell Me All about It – Just Read It to Me’”, in: Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (...)
  • 13 Virginia Lowe, “Guest Post: Beginning at Birth – Reading with Dr. Virginia Lowe”, Kids Book Review, (...)

24Virginia Lowe, reporting from Australia about child readers of the mid 1970s testifies both to Hughes’ international appeal (which I can corroborate from a Canadian context in 2023) and to her capacity to capture the attention of the very young. Her son was only thirteen months old when he actively engaged with Lucy and Tom’s Day in the company of his four-year-old sister.12 The sister told their mother, around the same time, that she sometimes pretended they were Lucy and Tom. She showed the pictures in the book to her baby brother because Lucy modelled such behaviour in the pages of this book. The title was a favourite of this little girl because “it was the only one she had encountered that told of the day to day doings of a child such as herself.”13


25By reading Hughes, readers of all ages learn significant lessons about how page design is part of the communication process. In a short reflection on the series, Hughes describes how the different conceptual frameworks of the assorted books affect design decisions:

  • 14 S. Hughes, A Life Drawing, op. cit., p. 170.

Lucy and Tom, from their first unassuming debut, went on developing. The books are about essential infant concerns: Christmas, going to the seaside, starting school, a b c and 1 2 3. These last two called for a very varied break-up of the page, from small detailed drop-ins to wide panoramic spreads.14

26Sue Walker, discussing how children learn to read information books, talks about the role of design in guiding a reader’s attention, and lists some of the possible options in shaping a page or a double-page opening. Her list of options casts some light on the deliberations that contributed to how Hughes’ pages were put together:

  • 15 Sue Walker, “Reading information: Using graphic language to enhance engagement with children’s book (...)

Decisions then need to be made as to the placement of an illustration in relationship to the text: Should the illustration go above or below the text to which it refers? Should the text wrap around the illustration or be positioned alongside it. Illustrations may be squared up or boxed; bled off the page on one or more edges; vignetted or cut out; or perhaps organized as a series of plates.15

27In the case of the Lucy and Tom books, for all their apparent simplicity, the correct answer is: All of the above. The variability of the design is striking but the flexibility comes across as highly purposeful. Hughes says,

  • 16 S. Hughes, A Life Drawing, op. cit., p. 170.

There is a huge fascination in contriving a simple whole, very easily accessible and satisfyingly shaped, but like an onion, many layered within; detailed but entirely comprehensible to the very young. You keep the narrative flow going from left to right, the way we eventually learn to read text. Like a small theatre, the picture-book form is endlessly adaptable and can be used in countless different ways. To me the spread itself, opening on a centrally sewn gutter, offers a boundless potential.16

28The diversity of Hughes’ pages is indeed theatrical in creating delight through a variety of presentation modes. But the narrative thrust is forward and we see items reappearing in action at later stages of a book; Hughes may be described as a mistress of follow-through. In Lucy and Tom’s Christmas, for example, we see, in an early opening, a free-standing image of the calendar that Tom made for Granny at nursery school, sharing a page with images and descriptions of Tom’s presents for all his family members. Later, in a page presenting scenes from Christmas Day, there are four rectangular images with rounded corners, and two circular panels connected by evergreen wreathing. In the lower circle, we see a small image of Granny hugging Tom while she holds out his calendar to admire it. In my paperback edition, the original calendar is eleven centimetres high, while the small one is just over one centimetre in length, about one-tenth of the size of the original picture but manifestly the same object. The consistency of material items across the scale right down to miniature appeals to many children; continuity also works on a larger scale between different titles. The hardcover title of Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c. features a full-on mise-en-abyme: Lucy and Tom are reading a book whose cover displays Lucy and Tom reading that book, and so the scenario carries on shrinking to vanishing point. I have never met a child who was not enchanted by this particular mind-game (which survives the translation to a new cover) – but the lesser games of scale played through and between the books are also very appealing.

Art, design, and information: a package deal

29Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c. offers very young readers a model of sophisticated design decisions. The border on the front cover of the original hardback offers a pictorial example for each letter of the alphabet. The back cover is bordered instead by the letters themselves, upper and lower case; the image features only the eponymous a.b.c., with an apple, some books, and Mopsa the cat. The same three representations repeat on the title page, but the apple has a bite out of it, the books are rearranged, and the cat is washing its paw. Even young readers can readily grasp what these three items represent. They internalize that Mopsa is here as a representative “cat,” embodying C, not M; and they observe and appreciate the small differences between the two images.

30The first double-page opening offers a huge range of “A” items surrounding the central image of Lucy and Tom reading this book. Lucy has an apple, Tom, a plate of apricots. There is more of both fruits in the lavish frieze that ranges across both pages and also features ants and aunties, aeroplanes, acrobats, and artists. The artist is represented by a hand holding a brush, with wrist and arm bleeding off the page. This hand is metafictionally painting the very image we are regarding – another break in the fourth wall, and a reminder that these examples are deliberate choices.

31In their first appearance, the hardbacks’ cover designs provided a clue to child readers that Lucy and Tom’s 1.2.3. and Lucy and Tom’s a.b.c., are conceptually related, even though the former is a narrative, and the latter is an encyclopedia. The original cover of Lucy and Tom’s 1.2.3. is also enclosed in an information-bearing formal frame, parallel to the design of the alphabet book cover. We see the numbered items from the book, ranging from one to twelve (one teddy, two slippers, etc.). The alphabet is finite, but our numbering system is not, so the numerical frame moves on from the initial twelve items of the book adding more numbers up to sixteen, perhaps as a gesture to infinity. The extra items all incorporate features of a child’s world that invite counting: ducklings, Easter eggs, daisies on a daisy chain, and beads on a string. In a further refinement, all these items can be spotted in the illustrations of the book, though they are never mentioned in the words. Although the organization of the contents of the two books is different, the symmetrical covers make it clear that letters and numbers belong to the same universe. The two books sit comfortably “beside” each other rather than representing either sequence or repetition.

32Covers of the new editions are cleaner and sparer, but the removal of this design link between the alphabet and the number system is a conceptual loss. Red Fox’s 2018 edition of Lucy and Tom: From One to Ten provides an example of the kinds of changes made and of their perhaps disproportionate impact on the conceptual subtlety of the book. The new cover has more white space since the formal frame is missing. A version of the frame does survive on the copyright page, but it contradicts the revised title by showcasing numbers one to twelve. The “hidden” items numbering from thirteen to sixteen simply appear on one page or another, with no foreshadowing on the cover. The sense of a careful and creative mind paying meticulous attention to every tiny detail is just slightly reduced in the newer version.


  • 17 Katherine Rundell, “Shirley Hughes tribute”, The Telegraph, March 2, 2022, (...)
  • 18 Frank Cottrell-Boyce, “The honest, messy childhoods of Shirley Hughes”, New Statesman, 11-17 March  (...)
  • 19 Michael Dirda, “Young bookshelf”, The Washington Post, March 11, 1990.

33Despite extensive searching, I found it difficult to locate much critical analysis of Shirley Hughes’ work in general or of Lucy and Tom in particular. What I did find was celebration. The sense of revelling in the excitement of how she subtly observes and expresses the lives of small children increased exponentially on her death at the age of 94 in February 2022. Katherine Rundell wrote in The Telegraph, “There’s a strong argument to be made that, if you’ve read Dogger, you can probably relax about other literature. Get to Dostoevsky when you can, but you’ve got the basics covered.”17 Frank Cottrell-Boyce commented, “No one since Rembrandt has so perfectly captured the precarious half-balance of the toddler’s toddle.”18 But as long ago as 1990, Michael Dirda called her “the Rubens of children’s illustrators.”19 (For the record, my own classical reference point would be William Blake; I recall many years ago seeing some examples of how Blake authoritatively combined words and images to create a complete and compelling page design, and spontaneously reflecting that Hughes conveys a comparable command of her whole double spread of verso, recto, and gutter.)

34Hughes offers children the opportunity to reflect on many high-priority activities of their own lives, rendered in art that does not patronize but considers these life events as entirely worthy of the artist’s attention. Lucy and Tom’s world is largely secure, but not entirely so. We learn that “Lucy’s worst thing at school was a boy called Neil Bailey who kept pushing her in the playground” (School, n.p.) and we learn that resignation becomes incorporated into the school child’s life: “Some days Lucy looked forward to going to school and some days she did not want to go very much, but she soon got used to it” (School, n.p.). We learn that Tom can be overwhelmed by his challenges on some occasions, including loneliness after Lucy starts school and a kind of frenzied fatigue at the end of the excitements of Christmas day.

35These little stories teach children that a book may provide a space to consider hard questions at a safe remove. It is not the reader who must rise to the occasion and help Jane with her first-day nerves; that is Lucy’s task. It is not the reader who is so bored and frustrated at being home alone; that burden is Tom’s. Lucy’s diffidence and Tom’s fretfulness are described plainly in the words and conveyed with more subtle nuance in the pictures. Children learn that they can recognize these emotions from the external accounts and that they can also understand these emotions via the energy of an internal awareness of how it feels.

36Many young children bring to these books a degree of expertise in the kinds of lived experience that Hughes converts into stories and pictures. Learning that aesthetic connection to a printed book is fostered via the energies of their own experience of daily life provides these children with diffuse but vital tacit knowledge about the act of reading. The connections between one book and another may be variable rather than uniform, but the overall impact is coherent as Lucy and Tom’s multi-volume and familiar world opens to the engagement and interpretation of novice interpreters.

37Although I would argue that the Lucy and Tom titles do not completely adhere to his definition of series books, Watson’s astute commentary about the appeal of such linked stories certainly applies to them:

  • 20 Victor Watson, “Series Fiction”, in: Peter Hunt (ed.), International Companion Encyclopedia of Chil (...)

The key to understanding the appeal of series fiction lies in the appreciation of endings. A series is not simply an extremely long serial; it is a sequence of narratives each with its own closure, providing points of completeness while allowing for the renewal of acquantaince with familiar much-loved characters and situations.20

38Lucy and Tom’s big world is segmented into six separate titles, each with a beginning and ending, each offering a new opportunity for early listeners and readers to increase their expertise as they experience the repetition of recognition and delight. Hughes’ acute vision of the priorities that matter in their own lives helps her interpreters develop insights that shape and influence their ongoing literary understanding, together with a sense of developing competence that lingers even after these perceptive little books are long outgrown.

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Recommended Reading

Shirley Hughes, A Life Drawing: Recollections of an Illustrator, London, The Bodley Head, 2002.

Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (ed.), Emergent Literacy: Children’s Books from 0 to 3, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 2011.

Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Picturebooks, London, Routledge, 2018.

Mavis Reimer, Nyala Ali, Deanna England and Melanie Dennis Unrau (eds.), Seriality and Texts for Young People: The Compulsion to Repeat, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Victor Watson, Reading Series Fiction, London, Routledge Falmer, 2000.

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1 Shane Denson, “‘To be continued…’: Seriality and Serialization in Interdisciplinary Perspective”, Journal of Literary Theory, n° 5(1), 2017, p. 5.

2 Victor Watson, Reading Series Fiction, London, Routledge Falmer, 2000, p. 6.

3 Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, “Seriality in Picturebooks”, in: Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Picturebooks, London, Routledge, 2018, p. 103.

4 Margaret Mackey, “Exciting yet safe: The appeal of thick play and big worlds”, in: Rebekah Willett, Muriel Robinson and Jackie Marsh (eds.), Play, Creativity and Digital Cultures, New York, Routledge, 2009, p. 93.

5, accessed April 24, 2022.

6 Shirley Hughes, A Life Drawing: Recollections of an Illustrator, London, The Bodley Head, 2002, p. 137.

7 Ibid., p. 138.

8 Ibid.

9 Herbert Grabes, “Encountering people through literature”, The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, 24(1), 2008, p. 125.

10 Ibid., p. 136.

11 Sally Williams, “Quick on the draw; don’t write off Shirley Hughes as the cosy gran of kids’ fiction: She is a courageous force against racist, sexist attitudes”, The Independent, October 25, 1997.

12 Virginia Lowe, “‘Don’t Tell Me All about It – Just Read It to Me’”, in: Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (ed.), Emergent Literacy: Children’s Books from 0 to 3, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 2011, p. 217.

13 Virginia Lowe, “Guest Post: Beginning at Birth – Reading with Dr. Virginia Lowe”, Kids Book Review, August 17, 2011,

14 S. Hughes, A Life Drawing, op. cit., p. 170.

15 Sue Walker, “Reading information: Using graphic language to enhance engagement with children’s books”, in: Anne Marie Hagen (ed.), Mediation and Children’s Reading, Bethlehem (PA), Lehigh University Press, 2022, p. 128.

16 S. Hughes, A Life Drawing, op. cit., p. 170.

17 Katherine Rundell, “Shirley Hughes tribute”, The Telegraph, March 2, 2022,, accessed April 29, 2022.

18 Frank Cottrell-Boyce, “The honest, messy childhoods of Shirley Hughes”, New Statesman, 11-17 March 2022, p. 46.

19 Michael Dirda, “Young bookshelf”, The Washington Post, March 11, 1990.

20 Victor Watson, “Series Fiction”, in: Peter Hunt (ed.), International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, London, Routledge, 2004, p. 541.

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Légende Illustration 1: Lucy and Tom series, Shirley Hughes, various covers.
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Margaret Mackey, « Small Characters, Big Worlds, and Intertextual Reading »Strenæ [En ligne], 22 | 2023, mis en ligne le 20 avril 2023, consulté le 22 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Margaret Mackey

Professor Emerita
School of Library and Information Studies
University of Alberta

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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