Celebrating Dixie O’Day: An interview with Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy

posted in: Clara Vulliamy, Shirley Hughes | 9

Looking for a fictional location and characters for your kids to fall in love with? The sort they will want to meet and visit? The sort that they’ll want to hear more and more stories about?

Yes? Well, can I then recommend the wonderful new world created by Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy, set in and around the twin villages Didsworth and Dodsworth, home to Dixie O’Day and his best friend Percy.


Dixie O’Day: In the Fast Lane is the first in a series of books perfect for young independent readers (approximately 6-8 years old I’d suggest, and appealing to both boys and girls), and for reading together as a family with both older and younger kids. Full of capers (the mad-cap kind, not the green pickled ones), cakes and a grand competition, it’s an exciting and funny read.

To celebrate the launch of the book I recently got to put some questions to Shirley and Clara (who happen to be mother and daughter), and here’s what they had to say…

Playing by the book: What car (if any) did your family have growing up? Did you go on long drives as a family eg on holiday? Do you have any particular memories of such journeys e.g. singing, sitting in the boot etc (I thought the inclusion of car games at the back of the book was a great idea).

Clara Vulliamy: When we were small my parents were fairly hard up so we shared a car with another family. I remember us driving down to spend the long summer holidays in a cottage lent to us by a friend. There we were, rattling about loose in the back (no seat belts then), with our claustrophobic cat on board too, her face pressed up to a small opening in the window, panting hysterically. We would play ‘who am I?’, make up daft songs and harass our Dad to stop for choc ices.

Exactly HOW we each ate our choc ice (who savoured it slowly, who gobbled it all up quickly, who broke the chocolate coating into little pieces) remains forever in my memory.

Playing by the book: Did you go to any vintage car rallies as part of your research for Dixie? (I can imagine you might meet some characters straight out of a book at such an event!) I adore the illustration of all the cars lined up for the start of the race – I bet you had lots of fun coming up with ideas for this – are there any vehicles which didn’t make it off the drawing board that you might share with us?

Clara Vulliamy: I didn’t actually find a vintage car rally to go to – but you read my mind because I’m on the look-out for one now! I could never have guessed how much I would fall in love with old cars.

The ‘Wacky Races’ scene was, indeed, hugely fun to draw. Here’s one that didn’t make it off the starting line:


The fox driving a tank was inspired by my great fondness for ‘Cars and Trucks and Things That Go’ by Richard Scarry. However we all decided that military hardware isn’t a good fit with modern sensibilities. Maybe one of your readers can suggest a good vehicle for a fox to drive in a future story?

Playing by the book: How did you decide what animals (and even different breeds!) the different characters were? And what was behind having both animal and human characters rather than just one or the other?

Clara Vulliamy: The crazy mix of animals and humans has worked really well I think. We especially wanted it to be a spontaneous, instant choice each time. It’s amazing how often Mum and I see a character in exactly the same way, though as illustrator I am allowed to have the final say!

I’m a huge Babar fan, and I love the way that the old lady fits into the elephants’ world without any mention or issues. It’s one of the many magical features of children’s books.

Playing by the book: The dedication in the book suggests that Dixie is perhaps Shirley on some level, whilst Percy is more of a Clara character – what characteristics do you each share with Dixie and Percy?

Shirley Hughes: it’s an interesting thought that perhaps Dixie and Percy have something of Clara and me in them, it never occurred to me before. Clara is certainly very good at turning up at our brainstorming sessions with some delicious snacks, though I doubt that her ballroom dancing skills would equal Percy’s.

Clara Vulliamy: I would like to add that, although Mum is every bit as dashing and capable and as Dixie, if SHE was at the wheel wild horses wouldn’t get me into the passenger seat…

Playing by the book: Lou-Ella struck me as a kindred spirit of Cruella de Vil – not just the echo of a name, but the stylish clothes and more. What makes a good baddy in books for children who are newly independent readers? Although Dixie is perfect for shared family reading, it’s also spot on for kids to read themselves, and I wonder if this means a different sort of baddy is what works best.

Shirley Hughes: I don’t think that I had Cruella de Vil in mind when I invented Lou Ella, who is not so much cruel as utterly self-centred, extremely materialistic and ruthlessly determined to win at everything. And, of course, her taste in motoring hats is all her own (Clara’s design, actually!).

Baddies are much easier to write about than goodies. When you are writing for very young pre-school children, like the Alfie age group, it’s a question of creating a character who is up against the same challenges of life as they are, rather than creating villains. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why dreaming up Dixie O’Day’s sometimes hair-raising adventures is such a pleasure.

Playing by the book: I love, love, love the maps in the front and back of the book – what other maps in children’s books do you particularly love? (now or as a child yourself)

Clara Vulliamy: I’m so glad, thank you!

The map in Milly Molly Mandy was such a childhood favourite that apparently I couldn’t be moved on from the endpapers… and there’s The House at Pooh Corner, and more recently Ian Whybrow’s Little Wolf stories.

It tells the young reader that these stories are really real and they happened RIGHT HERE.

Playing by the book: Yes, that leap into a world which is real becomes very easy to make. And bringing books alive, making their stories real is so wonderful and important – I completely agree.

Thank you Shirley and Clara. I think I might have to go an have a Choc Ice now 🙂

9 Responses

  1. Virginia Lowe

    We haven’t got these yet in Australia, but I’m a great far of Shirley Hughes. (She visited Australia once, and I particularly remember her stockings in hooped stripes – red and white maybe?) Anyway my children could always pick her drawings, forty years ago. “Lucy and Tom’s Day” was a great hit. “Why don’t I have a table for my doll’s house?” “why doesn’t the milkman come to our house?” etc – a fascinating lesson in another culture – like, but different too.


    This was a beautifully conducted interview, both interviewer and interviewees. It feels like the ‘inner child’ in all of you is nor only permitted but encouraged to come out and play! I’m very much looking forward to seeing this book. I might add that I too went on lots of long car-driving holidays as a child with my family. Though I didn’t always enjoy it then i’m glad my parents made the time to show us so much of country New South Wales
    thanks very much, Zoe, Clara and Shirley.

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