Drawing on life’s mammoth twists

Neal Layton ''Picture: Sarah Standing (150781-7443)
Neal Layton ''Picture: Sarah Standing (150781-7443)
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Ihad hoped Neal Layton would arrive on one of his many skateboards, hair flowing behind him and, with a bit of luck, hotly pursued by a woolly mammoth.

At 43 he is probably one of the oldest kids in town at Southsea Skatepark where he still enjoys hanging out and practising his hobby.

But it does not come as a surprise, for Neal spends most of his life surrounded by childish things. And before you scoff, the Southsea artist makes a good living from it.

For as one of Britain’s leading children’s book illustrators and writers, virtually every one of his waking hours is spent surrounded by the aforementioned mammoths plus rabbits, crocodiles, dinosaurs, elephants – an entire cast of characters which have been delighting children for the past 17 years.

If you have children or grandchildren, it is a pretty safe bet that somewhere among their collection will be a book featuring either his art or words, or both.

There have been 60 so far and his zany, sometimes anarchic work has accompanied the stories of award-winning authors such as Michael Rosen, Roger McGough and Cressida Cowell.

His Mammoth Academy series starring the woolly ones Oscar and Arabella are among the most popular, a series which he has written as well as illustrated. In fact, Oscar and Arabella won him a Smarties prize in 2003 – the Man Booker equivalent for books aimed at children up to five.

And as a mark of the respect in which he is held, there are currently two exhibitions of his work running in Portsmouth.

But, unusually for someone so immersed in the arts, the twists and turns of life almost saw him become a scientist.

‘I loved science and did them all for A-level plus astronomy,’ says Neal. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by where we’ve come from, where we are and where we’re heading.’

This is reflected in some of his work for older children, The Story of Everything from the Big Bang Until Now all told in 10 pop-up spreads.

But there had always been a natural gift for drawing. He wrote his first book when he was five or six. ‘It was called Space Cat and it featured my two favourite topics at that time – space and the little cat we had.

‘I used crayons, felt tips, my dad’s stapler and lots of headed writing paper he used for his job.’

Neal grew up in Chichester and went to Bishop Luffa School, but there was no burning ambition to forge a career in art.

‘I was planning to go into engineering or astronomy. I got the grades to go to university, but suddenly I switched course and decided to go to art college and do a foundation course.’

A degree in graphic design followed. ‘That’s when I realised I was interested in children’s books. I was very much an illustrator, which is a combination of designing and laying out text to go around the pictures. It was connected with what I had done as a kid.’

After his first book – a picture/story book called The Photo – was published he got a call from publishers Bloomsbury. ‘They wondered if I’d be interested in illustrating Rover by Michael Rosen. I didn’t need asking twice.’

Neal and his artist wife Sadie Tierney moved to Southsea 15 years ago. They have two daughters, Erica, seven, and three-year-old Betsy whom Neal has used to trial his work.

‘They are both my quality control and research and development departments,’ he says.

‘When Betsy was a baby and before she could speak I did drawings for her to see what she would respond to.

‘I realised she loved faces, so the books then just had big bold faces with big eyes which jumped off the page.’

And Erica? ‘She did some of the drawings of stars in Story of the Stars – a book in which I wanted children to discover all they ever wanted to know about the stars told in 10 pop-up spreads.’

She is now at Cumberland Infant School, Methuen Road, Southsea, which features, along with Albert Road, in Neal’s latest book Monster with Michael Rosen’s words. It’s the third book in the series which started with the bestselling Rover and Howler.

Neal says: ‘The series, narrated by Dog, starts by telling the story of a little girl called Rover. In the second book she has a sibling which Dog calls Howler and in the latest Rover starts school.

‘My daughter had just started at Cumberland and I asked the school if I could go in and draw there. They agreed and the book features the children in their uniform.

‘The school used money raised from a disco to buy the book for every child, so Michael and I went along and happily signed 200 of them.’

Neal spends most drawing days in his Southsea studio creating new characters.

‘When you pick up a pencil and draw a line it can lead anywhere. You can turn that line into a dog or a woolly mammoth, a funny face or a spaceship. I’ve always enjoyed that feeling of exploration and not knowing where I’ll end up.’

And what about those mammoths? Where did the inspiration for them come from?

‘The artwork from my first book was chosen for an exhibition in New York. I had to work in various factories to raise the money for Sadie and me to go.

‘It was the middle of winter, snowing, freezing, and we were sitting in a diner watching people go past the window in big woolly winter coats and Sadie just said ‘‘woolly mammoths’’.

‘I had a sketch book on me. Sadie drew her secret version of a woolly mammoth and named it and then I drew mine.

‘We ended up with Arabella and Oscar and I thought ‘‘wow, we’ve got something here’’ and when I got home I wrote the story.’ They are now used to help children learn to read.

‘When I started I worked in a bookshop and one of the happiest moments of my life was watching a little girl pick my book off the shelf, study it and then come and buy it with her pocket money.

‘It’s the most amazing feeling, seeing my books being enjoyed.’

Neal Layton’s work is currently on display in two exhibitions in Portsmouth.

In the cafe at the Aspex Gallery, in the Vulcan Building, Gunwharf Quays, is Illustrating – a collection of his original illustrations for a variety of his books.

You can see how original sketches morphed into many of the characters which have now become so popular with children of all ages. The display continues until May 7.

Meanwhile across the city at the new aspexGuildhall gallery in the Guildhall’s basement is Illustrated.

This exhibition shows Neal’s finished work in Monster, Rover and Howler by acclaimed children’s author Michael Rosen.

Neal, who completed a BA in Graphic Design at Newcastle, and a MA in Illustration at Central Saint Martins, London, uses all sorts of different media to create his illustrations to keep them as fresh and spontaneous as possible.

The walls of his studio are covered with pictures, drawings, scribbles, badges and photos.

Neal won the Bronze Nestle Smarties Book Prize in 2002 for Oscar and Arabella and in 2004 for Bartholomew and the Bug. In 2006 he won the prestigious Gold award for That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown written by Cressida Cowell.

He has now published the sequels, Emily Brown and the Thing and Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency.

Neal has also written and illustrated The Mammoth Academy series for older children and novelty books, The Story of Everything and The Story of Things.