Alfie gets in first : Shirley Hughes

Alfie Gets in FirstAlfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We all know and love Alfie right? I do. He’s an iconic character, created by the equally iconic Shirley Hughes, and this is one of my favourite titles starring him and his younger sister Annie Rose.

But, before I talk about this, I need to segue slightly. The other day I was discussing comic books with somebody and how they were being disparaged by parents who did not approve of their children who read these books. My point there, and one which applies here as well, was that the visual literacy needed to read and appreciate comics is massive – and it all contributes towards becoming literate. It is just another, and a deceptively complicated, route towards literacy.

Let me tell you about what I mean, and luckily enough there are moments in Alfie Gets In First which sum this up superbly. Consider the spreads where the locked door is placed central, down the spine of the book, indicated by the gutter between the two panels on either facing page. The verso(left) page tells the story of the increasingly active outdoor narrative, whilst the recto (right) page tells the story of Alfie, inside. What’s particularly glorious is that, at the same time of these two differing visual narratives, we also have a third layer to the book – that of the text, which describes the whole of the story, quite often ignoring what is going on beneath it, therefore forcing the reader to puzzle out and see what’s actually going on.

And then (not only, but also) we have the treatment of time in the book, the way the verso spread is slightly ahead of the text on the recto page and then, when the impact of the text starts to hit home, we appreciate the recto imagework even more. Take a look at the moment where Alfie starts to cry, his face crumbling as he realises the predicament of his situation. It is beautifully done, capturing the small boy in the shift – the actual moment – where he starts to panic a little bit.

It is all so subtle and so very cleverly handled. Picture books like this have a sort of deceptive skill about them. It’s easy to put a picture on a page. It’s not easy to load it with visual cues, to capture a cat mid leap out of the frame, to include incentives to turn the page, and to tell a story. It’s not.

Shirley Hughes is one of our national storytelling treasures. It’s easy to forget sometimes that we are living in a golden age of children’s literature and have been doing so for a good few years now. I genuinely think that names such as Shirley Hughes are those who flew the flag to get us here. And long may she keep on flying that flag.

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8 thoughts on “Alfie gets in first : Shirley Hughes

  1. This is such an appreciative and thoughtful analysis. Mum often talks about the ingenious and unsurpassed potential that this amazing piece of technology – a book – has for drama and story-telling, and the importance of allowing the clever young audience to be ahead of the narrative. I can’t think of a story that shows this better.

  2. Absolutely agree! I once did a lecture on ‘Alfie Gets In First’ and got v carried away and said that it was more dramatic than Dostoevsky ! I love that book so much – I love the way you can see things in the background that aren’t mentioned – twitching curtains, little dogs. I love the empathy with Alfie and the understanding Shirley Hughes shows!

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