Ruby in the Ruins -written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Candlewick Press, 2018
Shirley Hughes (1927-2022), was one of the greatest British children’s book authors and illustrators, although, sadly, her work is much less familiar to American readers. Hughes wrote illustrated picture books with simply rhyming text, family stories about Alfie and Annie Rose, novels for middle-grade readers, and even a version of Cinderella set in the 1920s. Today I would like to commemorate her incredible career with a focus on one book about a girl who, having survived the Blitz in London, must cope with recovering the family life she had missed while her father served in the military. It is sadly relevant today, but is also a universal portrait, through the quiet portrayal of one individual, of childhood resilience.
Hughes’s pictures of people are unmistakable. Using gouache and watercolor, they are full of motion, shading, and light. Mothers and fathers are short, tall, heavyset, thin, but never idealized. Children observe the world of grownups, but also inhabit their own sphere. Opening the book, readers find the endpapers printed with signs from the World War II era, reminding citizens to save food and fuel, follow air raid instructions, and “Make Last Year’s Clothes Last Years.” This is Ruby’s world, the postwar city of London trying to rebuild. Like many children, she had been sent away to a safer environment, but homesickness drove her back to wait out the war with her mother. Hughes captures both the terror of the bombing and the close bond between parent and child.
Then, in 1945, the men come home. There is no narrative voice explaining the contradiction between joy and disruption, as husbands and fathers are expected to integrate themselves into a changed world. Instead, we have a child’s perspective. Ruby’s father is a stranger. She has to leave her mother’s bed and move into an attic bedroom with fallen plaster and mice. Her father’s large, masculine, figure now seems out of proportion to his former home: “Ruby had forgotten how very big he was and what a lot of space he took up, sitting in their little kitchen.” There is a consistent Hughes tone throughout most of her work: understated, honest, empathetic, with minimal drama.
When Ruby joins the neighborhood boys in exploring the city’s bomb sites, Hughes conveys how children processed the vast devastation by creating an adventure: “These forbidden places were full of rubble and fallen beams and flights of stairs leading to nowhere.” When she takes risks and gets hurt, the boys go for help and her father arrives. The analogy to a soldier’s wounds is only implicit. Ruby’s bloodied knee is hardly the equivalent of the horrors which her father had witnessed. Still, the reality of war is in the background. Her father knows exactly how to regain his role as someone who supported and protected the family. Of course, he had done that all through the war, but Ruby needs evidence that he will also do it at home. Instead of anger, he expresses pride, while still providing the rules she needs: “You’re an adventurous one…But I should give those bomb sites a miss and play in the park from now on if I were you!” Too young to understand why children should ever have to play in bomb sites, Ruby at least has a father who loves her and can heal part of her fractured past.