July’s classic of the month

Happy birthday Shirley Hughes!

My memories of her from my own childhood may be dim but 40 years after it was first published – and as she celebrates her own 90th birthday – her bestselling story about a favourite toy lost and found is a firm favourite in my household.

Dogger tells the story of Dave, a little boy with an adored toy dog who lends his name to the book’s title. Dogger has one ear that points up, and another that flops over; his fur is worn thin with love and he’s been known to get so grubby that Dave has had to give him a bath and hang him up on the washing line by his tail to dry.

But then one day, Dave tags along with his mum and baby brother on the school run, and loses Dogger.

Here’s why I love this book. I love the oh-so-true way that Dave knows he’s lost Dogger, and gets all quiet but doesn’t say anything until bedtime. I love the way that Hughes gives his baby brother Joe (who’s teething and kicks his legs for licks of Dave’s ice cream) and big sister Bella (the kind of perfect big sister who wins races and raffles) so much character in so few pages. I love the way Hughes totally gets sibling relationships. I love the way that Dave’s sense of loss when Dogger can’t be found is so subtly but profoundly captured. And I love the book’s unsugary kindness.

I also really like Dave’s mum’s sense of ’70s style. At the school gates, when all the other mums are wearing dresses, she’s rocking flares and a headscarf and clog-type-shoes (it’s no surprise to learn that as well as drawing, Hughes studied costume design). The illustrations are pure joy, bursting with detail and life and rich colour that isn’t nursery-school-bright.

To mark the book’s 40th anniversary, it’s been reissued in two new editions: a giftable hardback (peek under the dust jacket and you’ll find Dogger himself, gorgeously embossed in gold) and a paperback that comes with a CD of lifetime fan, actress Olivia Coleman, reading the story.

Hughes took part in this summer’s Woman’s Hour Takeover on BBC Radio 4, and you can listen to her talking here – along with her publisher and designer – about what goes into writing a picture book. Just in case it gives you ideas.

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