Monday, 17 September 2018

From redundancy to award-winning picture book • Guest blog post by Kate Milner

Huge congratulations to author illustrator, Kate Milner, who last week won the prestigious 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize for the most exciting and promising newcomer to children's book illustration.
In her guest blog post, Kate takes us behind the scenes of her award-winning  My Name is Not Refugee. We see illustrations that didn't make it into the final picture book, and discover why they were left out.

When my job was replaced by a machine at our local library I decide to take the chance to do an MA in children’s illustration at Anglia Ruskin. I had wanted to do the course for many years but it felt like a huge risk to step out of the labour market when I had commitments. There was so much excitement and so much fear wrapped up in returning to education in middle age.

I had done some work in editorial illustration when I was younger and I have always drawn and written stories for adults but it was working in the local library which showed me all the possibilities in children’s publishing. I also, of course, met a lot of readers. It was an excellent education.

I came up with the idea for My Name Is Not Refugee at the very end of the course when I should have been finishing off a piece of work for presentation. It was born out of anger at the debate in the press about the march of refugees out of Syria. They were being described as a zombie army, shuffling towards us, and it felt important to me to explain to children why these families had no choice but to leave their homes. It was crazy to start work on this idea a few days before the end of the course but that is what I did, presenting at the final crit a scrappy, half-finished picture book, with no cover. We all agreed it had no chance of commercial success. 

All the steps which have taken me from that crit to winning the Klaus Flugge Prize feel as if they are nothing to do with me but all the wonderful tutors, fellow students, agents and publishers who have picked it up and run with it. When people congratulate me I always say that I have been very lucky. Being polite they generally then say something like, not luck but talent; but, without any false modesty, I know that it takes collaboration to get a book into the hands of children and I have been very very lucky in my collaborators.

Unlike others below, this is an early illustration
that did make it into the final book.
From My Name in Not Refugee by Kate Milner
Published by The Bucket List (Barrington Stoke), 2017
Some of the spreads in the final book have hardly changed since I first drew them. The illustration showing people sleeping on the station platform is an example (see above), it is almost exactly the image I made as soon as I had the idea. Some spreads, on the other hand, have gone through a lot of changes and below are three early illustrations which have not made it into the book.

1) We'll hear words we don't understand.
This was the first example of the idea. I was trying to get the feeling of not understanding anything around you as a child might who finds themselves in a strange country. It’s not just the people who are speaking a strange language, it’s the radio, the dog, the street signs and the magazines, everything is different. Although I still like this image I can see it didn’t fit in with the rest of the book.

Early illustration idea on language, Kate Milner

We'll hear words we don't understand, from the final book
My Name is Not Refugee,
Kate Milner

2) We'll see lots of new and interesting things.
Here is  another spread that went through many many changes. The little boy at the centre of the book is basically a cheerful, curious character so, to give a change of mood, I wanted to show him excited about something new. But what should the new thing be?

Early illustration idea on seeing new and interesting things, Kate Milner

This was one idea which came from looking at pictures of refugee camps on the internet. I could see temporary shops being set up with items for sale wrapped in plastic bags and hung from washing lines. I found this visually very interesting, the sweeping curves of the washing lines, the distortion of the objects through the plastic; I got a bit carried away. Again I like this image but I can see why it hasn’t made it into the final book. It’s my idea of what is interesting, not a small boy’s.

We'll see lots of new and interesting things, from the final book
My Name is Not Refugee,
Kate Milner

3) Sometimes we'll wait by ourselves...
I like this image, probably more than the illustration in the final book which is a return to my original idea. However, I can absolutely see why we decided not to use it.

Early illustration idea on waiting, Kate Milner

The heart of the book is the relationship between the mother and her little boy. On nearly every spread of the final book they are touching, or close to each other, or looking at each other. If she is there he is safe and can look out at the world around him. This illustration does not show that connection between them.

Sometimes we'll wait by ourselves, from the final book
My Name is Not Refugee, Kate Milner

Kate Milner
Thank you, Kate, for this wonderful insight into your new picture book, and for showing us that redundancy can be an exciting catalyst to something new.
Follow Kate on Twitter @ABagForKatie

My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner is published by The Bucket List (Barrington Stoke), 2017
Klaus Flugge Prize 2018


  1. Thanks for a great guest post, Kate. I'm always telling kids that one of the hallmarks of a successful creative person is that they are prepared to discard their initial efforts and start again to create something better. And my own career in children's books also began with being made redundant – in my case from a job as an architect – and I've come to see it as a blessing.

  2. What a wonderful blog about a wonderful book. I particularly love the unused picture of people talking in a language we can't understand. That's so powerful at making us feel that we're missing out on what's being said, but I also love the fact that the child is clearly intrigued by what he hears. I think he's going to learn that language fast!
    What I want to know is, what's your next book, Kate? You're wonderful!

  3. Thank you so much, Kate. A really interesting read and I'm about to order the book. It looks great. I'm glad you were made redundant! Clare.

  4. Thanks Kate, a great blog post and so wonderful to see some of your initial pictures and sketches. As a speech and language therapist, I also really connected with the picture of people speaking and the little boy not being able to understand- it conjures up such a lot of potential emotions, doesn't it? Thank you again. Lucy

  5. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

  6. So interesting, Kate, and thank you. The thought processes behind the development of the illustrations are illuminating. There's darkness, but shining through is a child just like so many other children all around us. As you say, the heart of the book is the relationship between the mother and her child. This makes it all the more heart rending to think of refugee children separated from their families.

  7. Great blog post, Kate. It is so good to be able to see the original thoughts behind some of the pictures and how they changed during the editing process. As a writer but not an illustrator, I know it can sometimes be difficult to let go of the image in your head for a page/idea, but I imagine even more difficult as the illustrator. But as Jonathan said, it is that development, and being able to see there are different routes to the same end, that shows how creative you are.

  8. Now I really want to read the book!