Tag Archive for Layton Neal

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton, illustrated by Neal Layton


Gleefully funny, this new picture book will send children squealing with delight as they take in an irrepressible protagonist and his bumptious audacity. Penned by Mr Gum author Andy Stanton, who reveals that he set out to “irreparably scramble the brains of very tiny children”, and teamed with multi-award winning illustrator Neal Layton, this was bound to be a successful pairing.

Egged on by his sister, the pair of them looking naughty from the first page (with their scribbly curly hair and delightful eye for speed as they race down the hill towards the beach), Danny McGee bets his sister that he can drink the whole sea. For who wouldn’t want to – when it lies on the page, glittering and sparkling, an irresistible blue. With an impossibly long straw, that’s exactly what he does. And then he proceeds to swallow everything else in sight. With a nod to There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, Danny’s preposterous swallowing is accompanied by his bragging brash stance, and an absurdity in the things he swallows.

The story is told in continuing rhyming couplets, all with the same rhyme (“ee”) giving Stanton a restrictiveness in rhyme to push the sense to a ludicrous degree:

“and he swallowed a bee
and he swallowed a cat who was drinking some tea”

An excitable energy flows through the book, as Danny swallows more and more, including the author, who is writing the book from inside Danny McGee’s stomach apparently. But what enhances this further is the cleverness of the imagery. Cut out photographs of real objects have been placed on top of illustrations, so that Andy Stanton does indeed appear to be inside the book.

On other pages, this works even harder – the straw is real – held aloft by cartoon Franny McGee, and when Danny swallows London, real Big Ben and the Crown Jewels nestle beside scribbly cartoon illustrations of chimney sweeps a la Mary Poppins. Real chips jostle inside a cartoon drawing of the newspaper encasing them. The style to make the illustrations look scribbled and fast is actually stylised and difficult to do.

But above all, it is the anarchic mischievousness of Danny that gives the book its zest. He swallows everything – the whole world and then brags about it.

However, all jokesters get their comeuppance in kids’ books. And as I keep telling the children – beware of your siblings. They know you better than anyone!

You can buy a copy here.

Silly School Stories

There are some writers who excel at what I call ‘slapstick writing’ – the sort of silliness that ties the reader in knots, makes them laugh out loud, then chortle delightedly, and declare the story ‘nonsense’ in the best possible way.

Two school stories for you this week, which are ludicrously ridiculous. But, deep down, underneath all the mayhem, there lurks a subtle dig at our education system.

uncle gobb

Firstly, Michael Rosen’s Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, illustrated by Neal Layton.

Malcom’s school tries to make anything that could be remotely interesting appear boring, and has a penchant for worksheets, particularly the ‘filling in the gap’ kind. His Uncle Gobb (who lives with him) has a soft spot for homework, and when Malcolm doesn’t give the correct answers, or even ask the correct questions, Uncle Gobb decides to place Malcolm and his friend in the Dread Shed as a punishment.

But Malcolm is already querying why his uncle has his name stamped all over the school worksheets, and when a genie appears, and then another, and the way out of the Dread Shed is found simply by opening the door, things start to become even more peculiar. Add in some chocolate bars, chapters that go nowhere, and wacky illustrations, and suddenly you have a book of nonsense, with a subtle rebellious message about schemes of learning, and a book that elicits giggles at every opportunity.

Michael Rosen’s casual approach is brilliant – there are blank chapters, barmy explanations of non-fiction, plays on words, and references to writers and readers, and he even points out the central conflict in his book with capital letters. Neal Layton executes his illustrations in perfect tune with the text – messy, humorous, nonsense. A laugh a minute book for 6+ years. Click here to purchase.

mad iris

Or you could visit Puddling Lane Primary, the scene of Jeremy Strong’s Mad Iris series. Jeremy Strong was himself a headmaster, so there’s an added pathos and depth reading his school stories, a truth running through the middle. Like Michael Rosen, Jeremy manages to poke enormous fun at education – in Mad Iris and the Bad School Report by Jeremy Strong, illustrated by Scoular Anderson, it is the school inspectors who take the brunt.

Pudding Lane Primary has a mascot on the grounds – the ostrich Mad Iris. But Ross and Katie have to keep her under control because not only is there a new boy who is allegedly allergic to ostriches, but also the Ofsted inspectors are visiting.

Jeremy Strong is particularly good at naming his characters, from Mrs Fretting to Miss Cactus, and the dialogue is spot on too. He also likes to poke fun at the school system – when the inspectors ask one of the teachers for the point of the lesson, she answers that she thought the children might enjoy it. The ensuing horror from the lead inspector is terrifically written.

There’s a huge amount of humour running through the story, from the relationships between fellow pupils, to those between pupils and staff, and lots of slapstick mayhem with the ostrich. Kids will fall about laughing – with Jeremy Strong it’s pretty much guaranteed. This book is also superbly illustrated throughout in black and white. Published by Barrington Stoke, it’s suitable for dyslexics, but will appeal to anyone from age 7+ years. Buy it here.

Where have all the children’s non-fiction books gone?

Once upon a time I used to work for a large (mainly reference, ie. non-fiction) publisher as a children’s book editor. In that time I also contributed some writing to the process, and produced a shelf full of beautifully illustrated/photographic, valuable, information-packed exciting non-fiction books for children.

From an egotistical point of view, sadly, none of the books seems readily available, in fact the publisher (bought out by one huge media conglomerate) now focuses on educational titles and content online. (Educational titles are not the same as children’s non-fiction, for those not in publishing).

In fact, when I look for good quality children’s non-fiction titles in bookshops, I can’t find much.

There’s no media space given to it – when was the last time you read a review in a newspaper of children’s non-fiction?

Actually, you may well answer Christmas. This is the only time – it’s when a few high quality, beautifully packaged (for gifts) titles do the rounds. I can reel off the ones produced for this Christmas – some were amazing – although one bestseller had a grimace-inducing grammatical error in it.

The main argument you’ll hear is that children nowadays don’t look up stuff in books! They use the internet. Even in school, the children tell me they all look up things on websites. Excuse my scepticism – as a young editor I also trawled the internet to provide safe, quality content, ‘internet-links’ for the ‘internet-linked’ books that we published. The worthy websites were few and far between, and they certainly don’t appear at the top of the Google search results. The reason is that to produce a quality non-fiction book we had highly skilled writers explaining concepts in tight, concise, careful language. The books were fact checked by consultants, and editors, rechecked and rechecked. Then consideration was given to picture content, explanations and labels. It took time and skill.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Not unlike a school librarian (also in sharp decline), we editors/publishers of non-fiction meticulously gathered fact-checked accurate information, and presented it in an attractive, accessible, inspiring format to stimulate children’s curiosity.

And yet I know first-hand that for many boys (and some girls) non-fiction is the essence of their love of books. In the school library the boys head for the non-fiction section. In the public library they decry the lack of modern non-fiction titles. As a reviewer, I have a lovely stream of fiction entering my house, and yet every day my son asks ‘did any non-fiction come today?’ He’s desperate for it, and he’s not alone.

As well as producing a generation of book lovers, I also want children to know that they can trust books to give them the correct information, that ‘google’ isn’t the answer, but merely the question. I want children who can analyse different types of text in front of them – fiction, information, instructive, newspaper report, review, commentary, discussion. I want children who know that they can escape into other worlds through fiction, but can also make sense of their own world through non-fiction. It is costly for publishers to produce, but with some help they can do it. Let’s celebrate it more in the general media, let’s give it airtime, newspaper columns, blogposts, shelves in bookstores. Let’s hand our children the key to the future. It starts with a few expert checked facts.

Four Fabulous Non-Fiction books

story of stars

The Story of Stars by Neal Layton

The Story of Stars uses pop-ups, cut outs and a range of devices to actively involve smaller children in the mystery of the universe. It takes one topic and runs with it in the most exciting way possible, exploring facts through creativity. Although some of the concepts are very difficult, even explaining to young children that people lived thousands of years ago, and without computers!, the book introduces basic definitions, such as supernovas, white dwarfs etc, and explains the history of humans’ relationship with space, as well as posing a whopping discussion point at the end of the book. Perfect to share with young children looking for their first interests, and slightly older children to accompany school learning. (You can’t get pop-ups and cut-outs on the internet).

lift the flap general knowledge lift flap gen know inside

Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge

Children adore general knowledge. They love reciting facts. They have competitions to see who knows the most facts about countries/animals. Listen to them – their knowledge can be quite astounding. Usborne books do a tremendous job producing quality non-fiction. Just published, Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge is an irresistible treasure trove of knowledge, with fact flaps just waiting to be lifted to find out more underneath. There are sections on entertainment, living things, science and timelines. It even labels the ends of the ship for those who aren’t sure. (The bow’s at the front, stern at the back!) It’s engrossing and illuminating, and above all, just a fun book to dip into.

DK Dinosaurs

DK Dinosaurs: a children’s encyclopedia

Dinosaurs, transport, animals and space. The coolest subjects for little boys, only to be trumped by volcanoes and earthquakes as they get older. Information on space and transport changes continuously, but dinosaurs more or less stay the same. This is an all-encompassing massive reference title with everything inside. Divided into classifications, the encyclopedia introduces prehistoric life – where life began and the timeline of life before honing down into invertebrates, early vertebrates, dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Each section introduces the type of life before breaking it down into species and giving key facts – habitat, period, size etc. The pictures are stunning – it’s visually easy to read and appealing. There’s a detailed index and glossary and the text is clear and precise.

make a universe

How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients by Adrian Dingle

This book isn’t newly published, but is an excellent example of how to present non-fiction in a new, interesting, and fascinating way. The book essentially talks about the periodic table – but not how you or I ever learnt the periodic table. It breaks down every day things into its core elements using illustration and fun text and educates at the same time. For example it explains what you would need to make your own human being, how fireworks work, and what makes a safety match safe. With super headings such as ‘really cool science bit’, ‘Alfie (and his brother) go boom’, and ‘who’s the daddy?’, this is a science book that’s definitely not just for geeks. Thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing.