By Sarah Hoppe
I’m excited to introduce Milanka Reardon, the illustrator of our book Who Will? Will You? Milanka learned to illustrate at a very young age. When she emigrated to the U.S. from the former Republic of Yugoslavia at the age of six, no one in her school spoke her language, so her teachers sketched images of the English words for her. But instead of copying the words, Milanka took it upon herself to improve their work and draw more interesting pictures. Later, Milanka went on to earn a children’s book illustration certificate from the Rhode Island School of Design and was awarded the 2016 R. Michelson Galleries Emerging Artist Award. She is the central New England illustrator coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
I love to explore different mediums. Currently I am happiest working with watercolors and pencils. I love the looseness of the water and paint and watching it flow on paper, and then I like to have some areas more controlled with colored pencil or pastel pencil. I try to achieve a nice variety of textures. But most of all I am drawn to whatever works for creating that unique character or scene that best fits the story. Watercolor seemed to be a good fit for Who Will? Will You?and the beach scenes in the book. I have also been able to add finishing touches digitally with photoshop or procreate.
Did you have a definite picture of the main character, Lottie, in your head right away, or did she evolve? I know you made her a bit older, but were there other things you changed?
I can remember when I was thinking about Lottie. I was at Panera and I saw this beautiful little girl come in with her mother and she had this messy hair and wore flip flops on her feet. When I came home, I couldn’t forget her funny expressions and the messy hair. So, I drew who I thought Lottie would be. My initial sketches were of a much younger Lottie! I remember the editor telling me that my little preschool Lottie would not be walking the streets alone looking for a home for a pup, so I changed her to an older child, but I kept the messy hair and the flip flops.
What was the character process like for creating Lottie’s dog, Rufus?
I did a lot of sketching before the right Lottie and her dog appeared on the pages. I wanted Rufus to be able to run free on the beach with Lottie, so just the right kind of dog that a messy haired girl would love. I guess that could be any kind of dog! I sketched a lot of different kinds of pups that I saw on the beach or anywhere really. I remember pushing the stroller with my baby granddaughter and finding cute pups along the way. I was able to use some of those different pups in the story too!
Here we have some of Milanka’s early sketches of Rufus, Lottie and the final Rufus, my real -life Rufus, and the other pups that made it into the story.
Can you describe how your process differs between drawing (or painting) a picture and illustrating a story?
I enjoy both painting a picture and illustrating a story and sometimes they seem almost the same to me. But my paintings even though they tell a story can stand alone whereas my illustrations are part of a story with or without text. So, there is a lot of planning in illustrating a story and a lot of drawing to get the story right. It works together with the text. I like my illustrations to have a painterly feel to them, so they are paintings that are part of a story and work together and with the text. So, my process is similar for both except that usually I can get to actual painting sooner on a stand-alone piece of art.
That makes sense. What is your favorite subject to draw and why?
I love to draw all kinds of animals and to tell a story with them. I always love the funny individual expressions of the animals and see them as characters, and I wonder about their story. So, all the different pups in Who Will? Will You?were so much fun to draw, especially the sea lions and the otter mom and pup, even the bats! I learned a lot from your story - I didn’t know that an armadillo can also be called a pup!
You know, when I was researching pups for the book, I learned a lot as well. Ok, what is the most bizarre thing you’ve been asked to draw?
I did a few covers for e-books and this isn’t too bizarre, but it is a little out of my comfort zone. They wanted me to draw an artificial intelligence being in outer space that was human like and had human emotions, but it was not a human. It was hard to figure out how to make it like a human but not a human and to show that difference, so I made him blue! I really wanted to make him a crazy looking creature with three eyes and many arms!
That would have been quite the sight! Do you have a favorite color, and if so, what is it?
I don’t have one favorite color; I love all the colors in the rainbow. I was always that kid that loved her brand new 64 count box of crayons on the first day of school!
I can smell that crayon aroma just thinking about them! What is your all-time favorite picture book you didn’t illustrate and why do you love it so much?
When I was little, I was fascinated by the pictures in the old fairy tale books that my mother bought for me in Yugoslavia. They were so colorful and so ornate. I remember begging her to buy them for me and I remember carrying them in my little suitcase when I emigrated to this country. Ruth Sanderson’s The Twelve Dancing Princessesreminds me of them, only Ruth’s artwork is much better! When my son was little, he loved for me to readChris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Expressto him and I loved the illustrations, his color palette evokes such emotion! I also love his book Just A Dream, again such beautiful use of color! Yikes, I guess I can’t pick just one! I have more that I love!!
I can relate! There are so many extraordinary picture books out there. I remember my favorite as a kid was a collection of troll stories. My mom actually kept it and gave it to me! It is Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls retold by George Jonsen and illustrated by John O’Brien. The illustrations are so detailed and bizarre, I still love to pour over that book.
Ok, hopefully this next question will be easier to answer. What is your current favorite picture book out now and what makes it special to you?
I love reading to my little baby granddaughter and I love seeing her reactions to books. I love the laughter and the curious looks she gives me and we both love If You Give a Mouse A Cookie, That’s Good, That’s Badand of course she always asks for Lottie and Rufus (she can’t say Who Will? Will You? yet, she’s not quite two). She loves the different ways people say “No” to Lottie and she kisses the picture where Lottie is sad.
Oh goodness, that’s sweet! Kids are so empathetic. Now, I need your help. I can draw a great stick-man but would like to move beyond that. Can you give me some concrete tips to improve my craft in five sentences or less?
Have fun and sketch what you love and sketch from life every day. They don't have to be perfect sketches because just sketching helps you to see things better. And one thing you'll notice is all the wonderful gestures that people and animals have. People don't just stand still, they lean, they bend they do all sorts of poses even when just standing there. Sketching will help you to improve your craft no matter what style of illustration you choose, even stick figures!
That’s great advice, thank you! Anything else you’d like to share?
Thank you for writing such a fun book to illustrate! I loved working with you and Blue Whale Press on Who Will? Will You?
I feel the same way! It’s been a wonderful journey. Thank you for taking the time to talk pictures today. I think I’m going to go sketch something now, using these faces as inspiration.