Best Books for Kids and Teens » Children's Picture Books

Children’s Picture Books

recommended by Kate Milner

Interview by Zoe Greaves

Kate Milner, winner of the prestigious Klaus Flugge Prize, discusses some of the trailblazing illustrators that have inspired her own career. She heralds artists whose imaginative works have given us some of the most exuberant storytelling for children over the last 50 years.

  • 1

    The Railway Passage
    by Charles Keeping

  • 2

    The Lost Thing
    by Shaun Tan

  • 3

    As Time Passes
    by Isabel Minhos Martins and illustrated by Madelena Matoso

  • 4

    The Cat in the Hat
    by Dr Seuss

  • 5

    The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish
    by Dave McKean & Neil Gaiman

Kate Milner, winner of the prestigious Klaus Flugge Prize, discusses some of the trailblazing illustrators that have inspired her own career. She heralds artists whose imaginative works have given us some of the most exuberant storytelling for children over the last 50 years.

Kate Milner

Kate Milner studied Illustration at Central St Martin's before completing the MA in Children's Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. Her work has been published in magazines and her illustrations and prints have been shown in London galleries and national touring exhibitions. Kate won the V&A Student Illustration Award in 2016.

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You’ve just won the Klaus Flugge Prize 2018—a prestigious award given to the most exciting newcomer in children’s picture book illustration.

Having seen all the other shortlisted books, I was really impressed by the standard of illustration. I think the prize highlights fantastic and genuinely interesting new picture books. That’s partly why I was so surprised to win. The other shortlisted books are so rich in storytelling.

The pictures I did for My Name is Not Refugee and the whole feeling of the project for me were immediate. I thought, “I have to just get this image in your face—I want you to look at this.” As a result, there is an urgency to my book, which I needed in order to tell the story. The prize has highlighted some wonderful, wonderful books this year. It’s a fantastic thing.

Tell me, how did you become a children’s author and illustrator?

Well, as you probably know, I’m middle-aged. I have always drawn pictures. Years ago, I worked as an editorial illustrator in magazines about housing and law. I’ve always been interested in making images. I used to do a lot of printing, but more for myself. I also worked part-time in the local library and was fascinated by the children’s section. I was in there all the time shelving books, doing rhyme time with the children.

This experience got me thinking, “Well, can I do this? What do I think is good here? And could I do it well?” Then I was replaced as a librarian by a machine. I thought, “Okay, take this time to go to Cambridge to do to the illustration MA there.” I thought I’d take the chance.

I have a tendency to take chances in this way, which is possibly a daft way of conducting myself through life. It was a great experience doing the masters. Because although I had always been into image-making, the bit that I found fascinating and difficult was getting a sequence of images to work together as a story. A story that has enough variety in it but one that also feels that it all belongs together.

We are going to look at five picture books that have inspired you. Your first choice is The Railway Passage by Charles Keeping. It’s quite an unusual book. Could you tell us a bit about it, for readers who won’t know the story?

It’s a book about a row of houses and the characters who live there; children, adults and the elderly. One day, this community wins an awful lot of money on the football pools. It changes them—some in good ways, but others not so good. The nice people get even nicer, and those who were mean and crotchety before get even more mean and crotchety.

The last person on the row of cottages is a man who runs a bicycle shop. Winning the money really doesn’t change him very much at all; he just gets on with his life and mends the children’s bicycles. This book is very much of its own time—it was published in 1974. But I love it for the fantastic illustrations.

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It’s a story that you might not get now because it concentrates on the adults. I think it’s so good show to children today because it demonstrates another perspective.It reminds me of another world. The story is told by the children looking in on these grown-ups and the odd ways they behave. It’s also an urban environment, which you don’t often see in picture books anymore—it’s a rare look at an ordinary working community.

Charles Keeping uses quite a specific technique, doesn’t he?

It’s line-drawing basically—different weights of line. You’ve got some very thin spidery lines, and then you’ve got some strong, wide lines. He gets a huge amount of variety just from line-drawing.

Your second choice is The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan.

I think Shaun Tan is absolutely amazing. In The Lost Thing he creates a whole world, and in this case it’s a barmy world. It’s so rich in detail. There’s a sense of this being a real other world that you’re allowed to look into. It’s about a boy finding a lost creature on a beach. The boy decides to take it home. Eventually he sets it free again. A less imaginative illustrator may have made this story cute and the situation comforting. Instead, Shaun Tan gives us a massive thing that’s half sea creature, half machine. It is an imaginative book—full of energy—it is also magical, almost gothic.

“It is an imaginative book—full of energy—it is also magical, almost gothic.”

He’s fantastic. I love another book by him called The Arrival as well. But I picked this because it opened my eyes to what you could do in this format. It’s easy to think that children’s picture books should be quite safe and prescribed. But then you look at a book like The Lost Thing and you get the feeling that anything is possible.

Your third choice is As Time Passes by Isabel Minhos Martins, illustrated by Madelena Matoso, I’m rather fascinated by this book. Tell me why you chose it.

It’s wild, isn’t it? It addresses the concept of time for kids. But instead of showing clocks and hours and minutes, it talks about different things that you can observe changing over time. Like, “Fringes cover your eyes, because they grow. And, how eyes slowly get used to the dark.” It captures that sense of growing and changing, mostly from a child’s point of view.

It’s quite philosophical in a way.

Yes. Reading it makes you think about things differently. That sense that you get when you realise things have changed—your hair’s grown, or you’ve worked out how to do something that you didn’t know how to do a week ago. It’s very much about change and growing up but told in a very immediate and tactile way.

I love the image-making. It’s very smart, full of daring colour contrasts, and bold. I find it intriguing. I’m looking at the page now where it says, “Computers. All computers get slower.” This is about the real experience of children. I feel quite strongly that what we ought to be doing in children’s books is exploring what life is like for real children these days, which does mean screens and mobile phones. It means all sorts of things that we didn’t think about 30 years ago. And part of what people should be doing in picture books is helping children negotiate all these new technologies.

“I feel quite strongly that what we ought to be doing in children’s books is exploring what life is like for real children these days, which does mean screens and mobile phones.”

This book is a combination of some really smart modern graphics, and a well-observed text about change and what it feels like. It’s relevant. It’s exciting to see something that different from the mainstream—there’s so often a tendency to just distract everybody with farmyard animals. If you look at the number of picture books about farmyard animals, it’s huge, whereas the number of books about mobile phones and computers is tiny. But for real children there’s an awful lot more screens than there are farmyard animals.

I’m not at all the first to say this, but there is also a need for picture books aimed at older children—not just for the five year old to help them learn to read, but to help older children explore more complex experiences. I’m particularly thinking about social media. I’d love to get somebody to commission me for this.

Fourth on your list is The Cat in The Hat by Dr. Seuss.

This was the book that was in my head when I was child. I like to remember the effect that a book has on you when you are young. I used to have nightmares about this book, about the cat in the hat. It’s exciting and creepy at the same time.

I was looking at it again the other night. There’s so much fear and fret in it, and that sense that you know the mother’s coming back. Will there be time to clean up the mess? And the cat is alarming—I mean, you are never quite sure about him.

He’s utterly chaotic.

Yes! He could do leave you with a horrendous mess that’ll get you into terrible trouble. He’s no fairy godmother. He isn’t going to wave his wand and sort everything out. The children are running around, nervously trying to control it. There’s so much anxiety in it. But, of course, it does get resolved. And mum comes back, and it’s all fine. It gives me a knot in my stomach thinking about it—I think that it’s funny that that this doesn’t put me off the book.

It’s also brilliantly drawn—that use of line, the spot colour. Because print technology was different then, he has two colours and black and the white paper. He has to make so much use of each colour. I absolutely think that you do better work if you limit yourself. I can open up Photoshop, and do anything. But each project needs some limits so that you test yourself, so you push yourself.  Of course, once you’ve set the rules, you have to break them a bit and push them around.

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I’m looking at an illustration now of the cat. He’s got a tray balanced on one foot, an umbrella, a boat, a fish, and a cake. Plus a couple of books. And he’s on a ball! The exuberance and the sheer energy of it is just fantastic. The rhyme and the repetition give it even more momentum and energy. It’s tremendous. I love the energy. I love the chaos.

Finally, your fifth choice is The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean illustrating.

I follow all of Dave McKean’s stuff, and I think he is wonderful. In this book, Neil Gaiman’s writing works really well. I could just read the text and enjoy imagining everything for myself because the writing is so wonderful.

It’s essentially a story about how the dad of the title remains completely unconcerned as he’s swapped and moved and replaced. He doesn’t notice; you never see his face; it’s always behind a newspaper. Essentially, that’s the joke. It’s a bit like the Shaun Tan, it’s so rich. There’s so much going on: the use of texture, the line in it, they’re all fantastic. So are the sense of space and perspective in the illustration. Then, completely randomly, it introduces a character called the Queen of Menanicia—she turns up, says hello and is never referred to again!

It’s exciting and playful. I love the story. I love the characters. But combined with those visuals—it just grabs you.

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Interview by Zoe Greaves

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Kate Milner

Kate Milner studied Illustration at Central St Martin's before completing the MA in Children's Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. Her work has been published in magazines and her illustrations and prints have been shown in London galleries and national touring exhibitions. Kate won the V&A Student Illustration Award in 2016.