Working in library lead to picture book success

This week Kate Milner was awarded the 2018 Klaus Flugge Prize for the most exciting and promising newcomer to children's picture book illustration for her book My Name is Not Refugee (Barrington Stoke), which follows a young boy as he and his mother set out from their home to find somewhere safe to live. Here, she tells us how working in a library helped her to understand what would catch a child's interest.

"I studied illustration at St Martin's College as a young woman - and illustrated magazines on Commercial and Housing Law for a while - then spent most of my career as a librarian, where my passion for children's books developed.

When my job at the library ended, I decided to apply to do an MA in children's book illustration at Anglia Ruskin University, but found that my experiences in the library really helped my work as an illustrator.

One of my jobs, when I worked at the local library, was to run what we called Rhyme Time. This would involve 20 or 30 pre-school children on the mat with parents and carers. There is nothing quite so soul destroying as trying to read aloud to small children who have lost interest. You feel you have to bash on grimly to the end of the book despite the fact no one can hear a word you say.

When it was my turn to do Rhyme Time some kind soul had usually sorted out a selection of picture books for me to read. I quickly learnt to fillet that pile, leaving just the ones I knew I could work with, (I also had my own trusty favourites stashed away). I wasn't going to go into battle with the local toddlers without the best weapons I had at my disposal.

I was also, simply, choosing the books I liked. The books that pleased me. They were generally simple, with clear simple sentences and lots of suggested actions. The books I didn't like, and this is a personal taste, were books based on farm yard animals. A goose in a poke bonnet is never a good sign, in my experience.

Reading aloud to children changed my ideas about what a good picture book is. Illustrators like me often see picture books as a purely visual form, and their own picture books as a personal work of art which should be contemplated with quiet reverence. However, in the context of Rhyme Time they operate very differently. When reading aloud to a group of small children, it is the words that matter. You can hold up the book to show the children a picture but, however amazing the illustration, a page floating about for a moment somewhere in mid-air is never going to have much impact. You really only have the words.

The book is the script, the starting point for a collective experience. When it went well reading to those pre-schoolers, it was because of my voice and the things the children and I could do together. I remember one favourite where the physical book turned into an aeroplane, then into a rocket launching into space as it was being read.

I also learned about the drama inherent in the page turn. 'What do you think will happen next?' is the eternal question. 'Shall we look now? Or maybe now?' It taught me to always read the text of my books aloud to hear if it works. It also taught me to ask; if I found the book I am currently working on in a pile for me to read out at Rhyme Time would I use it or would I quietly return to the shelf?

I also helped with Chatterbooks for older children, groups for teenage readers and the Summer Reading Challenge when the local children bought back the books they had read over the long holidays to exchange them for stickers, certificates and medals.

For me it is important not to make judgements about what is good for children; what they ought to read. I have always been rather repelled by the 'reading is good for you' line; which sees reading as a skill to be acquired as quickly and efficiently as possible so that they can start that head long tilt towards exams.

In that scenario it is important for the child to read early, earlier than average, earlier than their peers; as if this is a sign marking them out as blessed by UCAS. The really special kids are the ones who drag their book behind the stacks and are thoughtfully picking their nose while staring into the eyes of Anthony Browne's gorilla. Or the kids trying to work out who is worse, Moody Margaret or the Incredible Hulk.

I think the most important lesson I learnt from working in a children's library, and this is going to sound spectacularly banal, was that I liked being there, I liked the contents of the library and I liked the customers. It seemed important for me not to get all judgmental, (except about geese in poke bonnets obviously), just to look and to listen. To listen to the children and look at the books and see what excited me, or moved me, or piqued my curiosity.

I am, in many ways, just an eight year old with bad knees and, after all, is there such a huge difference between the way a child reacts to a picture book and the way an adult sees it? I'm not so sure there is."

Kate Milner is pictured with Klaus Flugge, receiving her Klaus Flugge Prize for illustration.

20/09/2018Working in library lead to picture book success
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