V&A Illustration Awards: In conversation with Kate Milner (Student Illustrator of the Year 2016)

National Art Library
June 22, 2022

There are many simple acts we can do to mark Refugee Week (20 – 26 June 2022) and one of these is to read a book that helps us better understand how it feels to flee your home in search of safety.

Front Cover of My Name is Not Refugee shows child migrant embracing his mother against a plan background.
Book Cover for My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner, published by Barrington Stoke

Kate Milner’s children’s book My Name is Not Refugee is a poignant story that follows a child migrant and his mother as they flee persecution for the safety of Europe. The book addresses all the complexities of the European migrant crisis for a young but inquisitive audience.

Illustration from My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner

The book started as a final year MA University project and Milner’s bold attempt to tackle an unconventional subject for young readers won her the V&A Student Illustrator of the Year Award in 2016. The judges singled out Kate’s technical approach for special commendation, praising her combination of pencil and ink sketch-work with post-editing and colouring in Photoshop. Her book was later published by Barrington Stoke and went on to win the Klaus Flugge Prize in 2018.

Illustration from My Name is not Refugee by Kate Milner. Illustration shows refugees in sleeping bags
Illustration from My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner

Kate worked in collaboration with the team at Barrington Stoke, reworking her original designs to enhance their appeal to a young audience. We caught up with Kate back in 2020 and gained a valuable insight into her publishing experience. Take for example the evolution of the spread below. The original illustration from Kate’s student project may have been too frightening for young children and was iteratively reworked in collaboration with the publisher. 

Questions were added throughout the book to encourage young readers to engage with the subject. Kate then worked with Barrington Stoke to produce a teaching toolkit which is free to download online here.

We asked Kate a few questions about her experience of both winning the V&A Student Illustration Award and becoming a published illustrator:

Congratulations on winning the Student Illustrator of the Year Award 2016 for My Name is not Refugee. A year after winning, your work was published by Barrington Stoke. Did your success at the V&A Illustration Awards help you to get your work published?        

Barrington Stoke had shown interest in the book before I knew I had won the student prize but I think it helped make up their mind. A children’s book on such a political subject was bound to be a risk so the prize gave the project a seal of approval.

Your book received further recognition in 2018 when you won the Klaus Flugge Prize. Can you tell us more about the book itself?

It’s a book for primary school children about what it means to be a refugee. It is based on a mother, who knows she will have to leave her home town, explaining to her small son what is likely to happen to them.

You’ve subsequently written and illustrated It’s a No-Money Day, a children’s book described by the publisher as a poignant and powerful exploration of food banks and life below the poverty line. What motivated you to create the book and how did the ideas and characters develop?          

Front cover of It's a No Money Day shows young girl in her mothers arms against a plain yellow background
It’s a No Money Day by Kate Milner, published by Barrington Stoke

I made it because I felt angry. About one in three of the children in our country live in poverty, it is not just something that happens to a few children on the edges of our society, it is now normal. I wanted to make the statistics feel more real by showing what poverty involves for one little girl and her mother.        

It’s hard to say how I create the characters. I think about them while I get on with the normal activities of life; driving, hoovering or washing up;  but mostly I draw them until they emerge from the page and start to feel like real people.

What made you want to become an illustrator?                                          

I have always made images of some sort and I have always written stories but I found it impossible to decide whether writing or drawing was more important to me.  It was working in the children’s section of my local library that made everything fall into place. Children’s publishing is the one place were wanting to tell stories and draw pictures, is an asset not a problem.

How do you create your illustrations? Do you use both traditional and digital techniques?

I use both. All of my illustrations start as pencil drawings which are then coloured and collaged together on the computer.

What advice would you give to any students or emerging illustrators looking to get published?  

Don’t base your work on what you think a picture book should look like; instead think about what matters to you and base your book on that.

Children’s publishing is a very exciting place to work at the moment because it is open to all sorts of new ideas. I would also tell any emerging illustrator to enter competitions. The Victoria and Albert student award made a huge difference to my life and I will continue to be hugely grateful.

Previews of My Name is Not Refugee and It’s a No Money Day can be found on the Barrington Stoke website.

For information about the V&A Illustration Awards see our website.

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