'We need strong girl heroes in books': Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton on creating Emily Brown

Published on: 05 December 2018 Author: Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

Emily Brown is back! The much-loved children's character has returned with her rabbit Stanley to meet Father Christmas in a new picture book, so we asked Cressida Cowell about creating the character - and Neal Layton told us how he came up with her look... 

The cover of Emily Brown and Father Christmas by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

Cressida Cowell: 'Emily Brown represents so much of what adults have to learn from children'

I think we need strong girl heroes represented in picture books, and anyone who can turn down 'all the toys you could ever desire', as Emily Brown does in That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, is a person of some considerable splendidness, and a wonderful character to write stories for.

Adults are so bossy, telling children what to do all the time, but Emily represents so much of what we adults have to learn from children.

The grown-ups easily lose their way, getting caught up in work and pessimism and materialistic values, whereas Emily instinctively knows the important things in life.

For her, the essentials are play, imagination, your relationship with your rabbit, and a positive and determined outlook. She is the ideal character to remind a rather harassed and un-confident Father Christmas, who has temporarily lost his mojo, of the true magic and meaning of Christmas.

I have been extraordinarily lucky to have Neal Layton illustrate the Emily Brown books. He is incredibly talented, and the inventiveness and creativity of his illustration, strong and brave and imaginative and touching all at the same time, beautifully reflect the Emily Brown character and the Emily Brown world.

It is very important that Emily is a strong girl of action, and Neal encapsulates that so well, with an instinct for what I intended and imagined that is almost spooky.

I have a sister called Emily, and book Emily looks exactly like her, even though Neal hadn't met her, or seen a picture of her at the time.

When I saw his initial drafts for Emily Brown and Father Christmas, I knew that Neal had captured the text exactly, from Emily tenderly tucking Father Christmas up with a mug of cocoa because he's not feeling well, to the absolutely stunning flying sleigh spread where she takes matters into her own hands and saves the day once again.

Such is Neal's expertise and vision, I think my sole suggestion regarding the illustrations this time was, 'Maybe you should give Emily some Christmassy pyjamas?' Not exactly a major contribution on my part, but I never feel I need to do more than that with Neal.

I see many families who started their reading journey together with the intrepid Emily Brown and I'm so pleased that she is going on another adventure this Christmas.

Neal Layton: 'Children can be refreshingly honest'

Emily Brown is one of my favourite children's book characters. This is the fifth book in the series, so working on it was like meeting up with a dear old friend - a lovely feeling!

I start work on a new text when the conditions are right: a clear desk, a clear diary and my favourite pencils and paper at the ready. Then I start reading, and drawing. First impressions can be the most powerful, and my aim is to capture as much of this initial energy as possible. I keep reading through the text, generating drawings and notes until I end up with a big pile of possibilities.

The next stage is to create more detailed roughs. This is actually the most difficult part for me as the possibilities can seem endless, so I use my initial sketches and notes as a road map, to keep me moving in the right direction. At this stage the text is also broken down into spreads, so I'll be thinking about design, as well as the narrative arc of the story. Composition is very important here: where will the text go? How does it integrate with the drawing?

Finally, I begin art-working the book. I start drawing the characters in pencil quite lightly, and then as I become more confident of their poses, I'll make denser marks. I like to use lots of different graphite pencils, and alongside them I'll use ink, mostly applied with a range of Victorian dip pens, but also sometimes with a brush. This bit is all about mood and expression.

Colour is applied with pencils, paint and a computer, and I think about the subject I am drawing and what is the best media to use to draw it. What marks shall I use? I always imagine the subject in my head as I draw it, and that way the lines and marks will become more expressive.

I also like to use lots of collage in my work. Stanley's fur is made from my old teddy bear Rupert. Many years ago, when we did the first book, I took photos of the back of his head, and I've been using the same photos to create him ever since.

And as this new book is set in the night-time, I had to make some pyjamas for Emily Brown, so I designed my own Christmassy pattern to use as collage. I also used this for some of the presents.

I did most of the work for this book over the Christmas period last year, and I read the book in progress to my two young daughters and involved them in all the stages of development, from roughs to artwork.

Sometimes I jokingly call my daughters 'Research and Development', and 'Quality Control'; because children can be refreshingly honest in their reactions!

As you can imagine, many months later, when the final book arrived there was much excitement in our house. I do hope other families enjoy it this Christmas as much as we have. I think Cressida has written another perennial classic, and I know it will be read in our house for many years to come.

Read our review of Emily Brown and Father Christmas

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