We meet… illustrator Neal Layton

When I created a list of 100 children books with female lead characters earlier this year, there was one name above all others that writers, illustrators and parents said simply must be included.

Emily Brown.

If you are not familiar with this fine young lady, she’s a girl who is adventurous, kind and determined to do the right thing, with a loyal bunny sidekick called Stanley.

Emily is the creative collaboration of bestselling author Cressida Cowell and illustrator Neal Layton. Their first book, That Rabbit Belongs To Emily Brown, won the Nestle Book Prize in 2007 and The Times named it picture book of the year.

Emily Brown and Father Christmas by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

Twelve years since it was published, the fifth instalment is out – Emily Brown and Father Christmas. As always, it’s witty, warm and lots of fun, with a strong message about the modern world, magic and kindness.

The illustrations also have that wonderful spontaneous, cartoony, mixed media style that is characteristic of Neal’s award-winning work.

We spoke to Neal (who has published 80 books and counting) about bringing this cool character to life, how his daughters are his barometer of a job well done and which Christmas books he loves the most…

Neal Layton Illustrator. Photo: Claire Sambrook and Emily Whiting
Neal Layton in his studio. Photo: Claire Sambrook and Emily Whiting

Emily Brown is quite a character. Tell us a bit about the new book.

When I read the first Emily Brown book, I loved the character Cressida had written. She is feisty and strong-willed, with a tremendous sense of justice. They were all traits I loved. It was a tremendous joy to draw her. I think she is a strong role model for girls.

The latest book is set at Christmas time and Father Christmas gets in a bit of a muddle. He is trying to modernise things and eventually he needs Emily to sort him out and save Christmas. It’s a brilliant text, as all Cressida’s are. I read it with my kids a lot – they read it as I was illustrating it, and they really enjoyed it.

How was it illustrating Father Christmas, another iconic character?

I didn’t think of that until I started to work on it and then I went: ‘This is really tricky!’. I looked at all the Santas that have been and read a bit about where he came from. Then I tried to put all of that out of my mind and draw him as I saw him. He came out a little bit like the ones I used to draw as a child. I always try to key into that side of me.

Your style does have that imperfect energy, doesn’t it? It reminds you that someone has drawn it.

That has always been important for me. Seeing the work of John Burningham as a child, I wanted to do the same thing with my work and capture that initial energy when you put pencil to paper. Those first drawings can have such a power, those initial impressions can have such power. I try and let all that stay in my finished artwork. They look effortless but actually they take a long time! I hope it will encourage children to pick up paints and pencils and not feel intimidated.

How does the partnership with Cressida work?

She’s so good to work with because she is a fantastic illustrator in her own right. She knows when to give you creative space and when to come in and have a measured discussion. For all the books, she sends me the text to start with and I react to that as I see fit. Then at a certain stage she comes in and shapes it.

When you work on her texts, you start to appreciate the detail and the choice of words and how well they are written. There is so much to draw from. I love working with her.

This is the fifth Emily Brown book. Why do you think she has captured people’s imaginations?

I think it’s because she is a very strong character with a strong sense of justice, but she’s sensitive and an adventurer. She’s also a little girl. By that I mean, when I first drew her, I wondered whether to put her in dungarees or shorts. But I thought, ‘No, I’m going to put her in a dress’. Why shouldn’t you be able to go adventuring and save the world in something you feel good in?

When I look back at it, I think one of the reasons I put her in a dress is because Alice in Wonderland was one of my favourite books as a child. If you think about Alice, she has all these amazing adventures in this amazing pinafore dress. She’s another strong female role model. Another one is Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. She also has amazing adventures and looks good in her beautiful dress. I suspect that might be another reason why people like Emily. And let’s not forget Stanley, her sidekick!

Every child has that toy companion who is a bit dogeared and smelly!

The collage I used for him is the back of my teddy bear’s head, so that is the reason he looks so wore. Rupert has real grey worn-out fur.

You also work closely with Michael Rosen. Is that collaboration very different?

The process generally is the same, in terms of how publishers manage it, but the writing is different. Again, Michael’s writing is so rich, there are so many leads and ins for you as an illustrator. It gives you so much. He didn’t really have to guide me too much. I respond to the text with roughs and he responds with minimal comment. He would rewrite bits too.

When we did the first Uncle Gobb book, he saw what I was doing with it and things came to the forefront. It was nice to feel I was having input. He said that generally he doesn’t let anyone add words to his book but I added a load of speech bubbles! It’s nice that he likes what I do and I love his work.

There’s a very natural fit between your styles I think.

Yes, particularly those books. They are so clever, so anarchic and so Michael Rosen. Obviously he writes in lots of different styles. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is a very different sort of book and different type of illustrations. So much of the narrative is in the pictures. But the Gobb ones are a good fit for me.

It’s about 20 years since your first book. How do you think the picture book world has changed?

It’s changed hugely. Twenty years ago, it was the start of technology and a very different world. I would go up to London on the train with a pile of artworks under my arm and I would use a telephone and email didn’t exist. The main impact on children’s books has been that people can generate artwork digitally. It’s lead to an explosion of new names in picture books.

Going back to 2001, I did Oscar and Arabella and as far as I know, it was the first picture book done in Photoshop, or certainly that the publisher had ever dealt with. And it was on a machine that had 4GB of storage! It crashed every two seconds. The publisher was really worried about it being digital artwork and we had to make sure it didn’t look too computer-y.

Now you can do anything. You go into a bookshop and there is such a range. From the point of view of parents and children, it is an amazing time to be around. The only trouble is, it is almost a bit confusing because there is so much choice.

Oscar and Arabella by Neal Layton
The cover of Oscar and Arabella.

We talk about the death of books and print, but picture books still seem to be selling well. There is a real hunger for me.

This is a personal opinion but I don’t think it will ever be superseded. The picture book is the perfect form for reading a story to children of that age. The length, the fact it is a physical object, the fact you can snuggle up in bed and turn pages is so important. There are so many subtle things about books that you don’t think about but they are inherent to the medium and make them perfect for enjoying with children of a young age. Tablets are great for apps and longer fiction. But picture books are not going anywhere.

Do you have a favourite Christmas book or story?

Yes. I’ve got lots! I love that particular season so every year I try to buy a new book to enjoy with my children and have collected quite a few. A favourite is Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present by John Burningham. There was a new one that we enjoyed last year – Pick a Pine Tree. It’s a visual feast – Jarvis is brilliant. Brian Wildsmith did The Twelve Days of Christmas and we have a really old copy of that. It’s a family heirloom.

You said you were reading the Emily Brown book with your children while you illustrated it. Is that something you do regularly with your work?

I read everything with them, as I’ve got a six-year-old and a ten-year-old. I call them Research and Development and also Quality Control. It’s nice, they really enjoyed Emily Brown, as I was artworking it last Christmas. They say what they think, children. You get a nice honest response.

Neal Layton at work. Photo: Claire Sambrook and Emily Whiting
Neal bringing Emily Brown to life. Photo: Claire Sambrook and Emily Whiting

Finally, is there something you struggle to illustrate or avoid drawing?

That’s really tricky. To say I can’t think of anything makes me sound arrogant. But every book, even though I’ve been doing it 20 years, I find it a struggle. It’s a new world, it’s new characters and I’m covering new ground. Every book is a challenge. All drawing is.

My biggest challenge is trying to retain the energy and the bounce. Sometime a drawing can be wrong but right for the context. That’s the thing I find hardest, not to be too literal but to let the words do some work, the drawings do some work and the imagination do some work.

Can you sit back and go: ‘That’s it’?

Sometimes you really have to put the pencil down or leave some time or show it to the children. Sometimes they will say to me: ‘Don’t do any more Dad, it’s finished!’. Which is very helpful!

Emily Brown and Father Christmas by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton is out now. £12.99 (hardback), Hodder

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