The winner of the 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize for the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s book illustration was announced last night, Wednesday 12 September. I’m delighted to tell you that the prize went to Kate Milner for My Name is not Refugee (Barrington Stoke), and I was lucky enough to ask her about her win.
Kate studied illustration at St Martin’s College as a young woman – and illustrated magazines on Commercial and Housing Law for a while, but spent most of her career as a librarian. Cuts to the library service resulted in her losing her job, and that prompted her to do an MA in children’s book illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. She created the story that was to become My Name is Not Refugee as part of her degree show, and with it won Student Illustrator of the Year in the V&A Illustration Awards.
And now the prestigious Klaus Flugge. How do you feel?
I am absolutely delighted and quite astonished. I really did not think I had a chance.
I wrote the book to explain to children what a refugee is. I wanted to get a tool into the hands of teachers, parents and librarians to help them define the term for children and give some small hint of what the experience might be like. The issue has become much more contentious recently because many on the right like to depict refugees as invaders or spongers, not people in real need. I wanted to provide something to be used by people with a more balanced view.
You said you felt quite angry when you were drawing the illustrations for the book, in particular the one with the caption ‘We’ll sleep in some strange places’, but that the anger hasn’t filtered through in the final book – it’s stripped back. Which emotion would you like children to feel when reading the book?
I would like children to feel sympathy for the plight of refugees and curiosity about why they are in such a difficult situation. It was important to me not to make this an angry book, children don’t need adult’s anger; they need clarity.
Did it take a long time to write and illustrate the book? And did the stripped back illustrations and limited palette come naturally as you were planning?
I certainly wrote and illustrated the first draft ridiculously quickly with, lets be honest, not very much planning at all. I thought of the idea about twelve days before the final critique for my MA at Cambridge. It was obviously supremely stupid to embark on a new project so close to the end of the course; I tried to stop myself but I failed. The stripped back quality comes, partly, from trying to make a book that applies to all sorts of refugee situations so trying to avoid specific details like domestic interiors. At that stage it didn’t really have a palette, that evolved later in discussion with the publishers.
Do you feel that your book has a happy ending or is it ambiguous?
It is happier than the reality of most refugees lives would suggest. I wanted children to be able to read it as happy, and the boy at the centre of the book is a cheerful, outgoing character so I think he would flourish. I’m not sure his mother would find it so easy.
Is there a need for more political books for young children?
I don’t think children care much about party politics, and who can blame them, but they are curious about an increasingly complicated and inter-connected world. Picture books are a very flexible and relatively cheap way of introducing all sorts of new ideas, emotions and information. Nice, decent adults tend to feel that children should be shielded from politics, and I can see their point but, if we’re not careful the only voices they hear on these subjects are ignorant and shouty.
You started life as an illustrator but then became a children’s librarian. Do you think you have a special insight into what children want from a picture book by being blessed with these two different but rewarding careers?
Working in a library certainly made a huge difference to me. Being surrounded by children’s books all day was really inspiring. My job involved reading out loud to groups of children and reading a book out loud is such a good way of discovering if it works or not. Too much detail about the thoughts and feelings of farmyard animals bored me as well as the children I was reading to. Knowing something about children has been a huge advantage in one respect, I know that they are curious about many more things than they are sometimes given credit for.
Can you tell MinervaReads readers a little bit about your next project/book?
I am working on a very different kind of book for Pushkin Press, a novel for middle grade children with illustrations. It’s called Duncan and the Googleys and it’s a serious book with jokes about the way modern media works for children and against them. I am also looking forward to doing more projects in the vein of My Name is Not Refugee and I’m working on an idea at the moment.
What is your favourite picture book?
My current passion is for The Railway Passage by Charles Keeping published in 1974. It is a strange tale about a group of old people winning money on the football pools and the perils of wealth. I love it because it conjures a whole world of people and places, and because the drawing is superb.
What advice would you give budding illustrators or authors?
The very worst plan is to produce work that you think will be commercial. It won’t be, it will just be derivative and stale. Make work that matters to you, make it as fun and lively and real and magical as you possibly can.
Congratulations again on your win, and thank you for answering my questions. You can buy Kate Milner’s My Name is Not Refugee here.