Shirley Hughes is being coy. The distinguished author and illustrator has just revealed a "big surprise": she has written her first novel, at the age of 84 – but is now reluctant to give too much away. All she will say is that it is a thriller for older children, set in Italy during the Second World War.
"[My husband] John [Vulliamy] died four years ago and I was OK during the week, you know, doing my work," says Hughes, best known for her picture books depicting the exploits of Alfie, as well as Dogger, the story of a lost toy dog, which won her the Kate Greenaway Medal. "But the weekends were hell, and I started writing a novel to sort of make them more bearable. I enjoyed doing it. I'm doing another one now."
The novel, undoubtedly, will be rooted in reality. Hughes – unlike many contemporary children's authors – does not "do fantasy", but has interesting views on why the genre is so popular with young readers. She believes it is partly because, nowadays, "people are very nervous of children going out alone".
Hughes, who has sold more than 12 million books worldwide, recently looked at the Just William tales. "Those children in those stories, they could go out in the morning and not come back till suppertime and nobody worried about where they were or where they were gone to," she says, mentioning the adventures enjoyed by characters in works by Enid Blyton and E Nesbit. "I think perhaps that is the attraction of fantasy fiction because the modern child is always being supervised, looked after. I think [with] fantasy fiction, you're just out there on your own, which is what children actually want. A good children's story usually gets rid of the parents in chapter one."
Born in 1927, Hughes grew up in the Wirral with her mother and two sisters. Her father, Thomas Hughes, founder of the Liverpool department store TJ Hughes, died when she was small. Always a "drawer", she was thrilled by visits to the city's Walker Art Gallery. The sisters also used to make up games and act plays, no doubt inspired by the family's regular trips to Liverpool's theatres, pressing people to go and watch them. "We were always bursting out from behind the curtains."
She left school at 16 and studied history of costume at Liverpool Art School, as she hoped to design outfits for the stage. However, a summer working as a "dogsbody" at Birmingham Rep persuaded her that theatrical life was not for her and she enrolled at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.
A self-taught illustrator, she eventually landed a job designing the cover of a book called The Hill War, and began her career illustrating other authors' work. Her first book as an author-illustrator was Lucy & Tom's Day in 1960, but it was Dogger in 1977, for which she won her first Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. It was her breakthrough. She won another Greenaway in 2003 for Ella's Big Chance, before Dogger was voted the public's favourite Greenaway winner of all time in 2007.
The first thing that strikes me about Hughes when we meet at the Notting Hill house in which she and Vulliamy, an architect, brought up their three children – journalist Ed, molecular biologist Tom, and author-illustrator Clara – is her warmth. She opens the door with a smile and ushers me to an armchair next to which she has laid out a plate of biscuits. The living room is scented by the pink lilies on the mantelpiece, on which one of Clara's books enjoys pride of place.
It is a homely scene, entirely fitting for an author who specialises in "domestic dramas", such as the tales of everyday family life depicted in her Alfie series, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. In his debut adventure, Alfie Gets in First, Alfie manages to lock his mother and sister out of the house.
"In my own books, I don't do talking animals or flights to the Moon or anything like that," says Hughes, who was appointed an OBE for services to children's literature in 1999, but turned down the chance to be Children's Laureate because she felt the commitment would not be fair on her family. "I do real life, and these dramas are very important to my readership: things like getting your boots on the right feet; going to a party without your mum and with your security blanket and putting your security blanket down in order to join in; having a babysitter and there's a burst pipe and water comes in."
Some are inspired by real events. Dogger tells how a little boy loses and finds his favourite toy; Hughes's son Ed lost his teddy in the park (it was never found). Hughes was also parted from her koala bear, Oscar, on a car trip to Wales at the age of four or five. "I thought, now I'll just throw – I loved him – Oscar out of the window and I was so appalled that I said nothing for quite a long time, so of course miles further on, I suddenly said, 'I've thrown Oscar out of the window.' He was never found either. Needless to say, we went back. My poor mother."
Hughes brings her characters to life in a first-floor studio overlooking the communal gardens in which her children used to play. Her enthusiasm is infectious, as she shows me illustrations and explains future projects. Although she goes "slower" than she did and has cut back on book fairs and public appearances, she has no plans to retire. "Oh, there's no such thing, is there? I don't see there as being. Why should I retire? Only when nobody wants to read my books." That doesn't seem likely anytime soon.
'All About Alfie' by Shirley Hughes is published by Bodley Head