By Paula Johanson
Photo by Glenn Anderson
Monica Hughes has been called "Canada's
finest writer of science fiction for children" by critic Sarah Ellis
in The Horn Book magazine. Ellis goes on to say: "There is a
gentleness to her books that is rare... The hairsbreadth escapes,
the exotic flora and fauna,... the villains and the heroes all are
enclosed in one overriding concern, subtle but ever present: the
value of kindness. This theme seems rather a nonrobust one... But
Monica Hughes manages to clothe the homey quality in flesh and blood
... to give it strength and resilience."
Monica Hughes was born Monica Ince in
Liverpool, England, on November 3, 1925. Her parents then both worked at the
University of Liverpool, her father (E.L. Ince, a Welshman) in mathematics and
her mother (Phyllis Ince, an Englishwoman) in biology. A few months after young
Monica's birth, her parents left Liverpool so that her father could take up a
new position as head of the department of mathematics at the new University of
Cairo in Egypt.
Young Monica's first memories are of Egypt:
their first house in Heliopolis, walks in the desert with the nanny for Monica
and her younger sister, and seeing mirages of palm trees and buildings floating
in the sky. Later they lived in an apartment in Cairo, with a spectacular view
of the pyramids, which they visited on weekends. Her parents climbed the Great
Pyramid for the view, while the girls played with bottle caps littered in the
sand at its base. "So much for history," sighed Hughes in the Something about
the Author Autobiography Series, Volume II. She still remembers little
lizards, birds of prey and the wind-blown sand; these and other memories became
elements in her novels Sandwriter and The Promise.
The Ince family returned to England in 1931 so
the girls could attend school in a suburb of London, England. Young Monica was
pleased and excited by the exposure to music and a wider range of books,
particularly Norse mythology and the works of E.O. Nesbit. For a while she
wanted to be an archaeologist and Egyptologist, but seeing Boris Karloff in the
film The Mummy gave her nightmares for weeks and put an end to that
When the Ince family moved to Edinburgh in
1936, young Monica found refuge from the plain, cold city and boring school in
the nearby Carnegie library. Young Monica plunged into the dramas of 19th
century writers, and the works of Jules Verne. All her small allowance went on
hardcover blank books in which she would write exciting titles and "Chapter
One." Then she would sit and dream of being a famous writer. That and a journal
kept when she went on vacations was all the writing she did at that time.
When the war began in 1939, Monica and her
sister were sent away to school, first to an isolated hunting lodge in Scotland.
Her experiences her were later to become the core of her 1996 novel The Seven
Magpies, in which several girls are sent away to school in an isolated
hunting lodge in Scotland. Later the Ince girls were sent to a boarding school
in Harrogate, not far from the Yorkshire moors where the Bronte sisters had
lived. There she was encouraged to write fiction, as well as essays and
After her father died, Monica could no longer
plan to go to Oxford; Edinburgh University was the best the family could afford.
At age sixteen she began an honours mathematics degree, though the English
lecturers were far more interesting to her. At eighteen, she volunteered for
service in the Royal Navy, was sent down to London, and spent two years working
with thousands of other WRENs on the secret project of breaking of the German
code. Her experiences were later put to good use in The Seven Magpies,
where the mother of the central character goes to London as a WREN working on a
secret project in the War Effort. In London, young Monica spent every free
moment she had in the gallery of the New Theatre watching ballet.
After the war, Monica transferred into
meteorology, first in Scotland and then Belfast, where she was delighted to find
food rationing a thing of the past. When she left the WRNS in 1946,she lived in
Chelsea (London) with her mother and sister. For a few years she worked
freelance as a dress designer, before taking a friend's advice and travelling to
visit South Africa and Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). She lived and worked with
that friend's sister and husband for two years, making first-run dresses for a
local factory, and later working in a bank. Her journey to Africa and back
stayed long in her memory, and her experiences filtered into many of the books
she was later to write.
Living once again with her mother and sister
in an unheated London apartment got her thinking about the sun. Australia seemed
to be the place to emigrate, but the waiting list was three years long. Monica
left for Canada instead, in April of 1952, intending to work her way across to
the west coast and pick up a ship across the Pacific to Australia. Working in
Ottawa, Ontario in the National Research Council, she began writing stories to
combat the loneliness she felt. At a writing class at the YMCA she met a woman
who became her best friend in Canada, and who introduced Monica to Glen Hughes,
who became her husband in 1957.
The Hughes lived in Ontario, moving from
Cornwall, to Toronto and London with Glen's work. Monica began writing again in
the late evening and early morning, as well as caring for their four children.
When their youngest was a week old in 1964, they moved to Edmonton, Alberta,
driving on the new TransCanada Highway across the seemingly endless prairies --
a trip that she remembered twelve years later when writing her novel
Earthdark. This began a furiously creative time for Monica Hughes: she
painted in oils, embroidered wall hangings, wove tapestries and wrote, but never
sold a single short story, article or novel.
With the death of her mother and sister, and
as her children grew older, Monica Hughes had few touchstones to her past
memories. In 1971 she resolved to spend a year writing for four hours each day.
She read armloads of books by the best writers for young people. After some
unfruitful efforts, she was inspired by a Jacques Cousteau movie The Silent
World to begin her novel Crisis on Conshelf Ten. In 1974 it was
accepted by a British publisher, who asked for another story about the lead
Hughes had a natural writing style, which
sustains all her novels. When writing her book The Tomorrow City, Hughes
developed an awareness of two halves of her mind: the right brain (imaginative,
holistic, in touch with one's dreams and subconscious) and the left brain
(linear, logical, from which comes language, without which stories cannot be
written). From this understanding came Hughes' ability to construct a story
which would be of interest, make sense and mean something important to the
Monica Hughes found story ideas everywhere. In
1974, she read a newspaper article about a boy condemned to an isolated life
because of a faulty immune system. She kept the clipping in her IDEAS file for
five years, read it at least ten times, and from her thoughts about isolation
and loneliness came her novel The Keeper of the Isis Light, and two
sequels. These were her most popular and celebrated works.