The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Milanka Reardon
Milanka Reardon is a graduate of the Children’s Book Illustration and the Natural Science Illustration Certificate programs at the Rhode Island School of Design. She served as co-Illustrator Coordinator for the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators from 2015-2021. She lives with her family in Webster, Massachusetts.
Milanka’s the illustrator of An Old Man and His Penguin by Alayne Kay Christian (2020), Who Will? Will You? by Sarah Hoppe (2019), and Noodles’ and Albie’s Birthday Surprise (2016), which is a 2018 Mom's Choice Gold Award Recipient.
Her newest picture book, Child of the Sea, releases January 18th, 2022.
Tell us a little about how you got started illustrating? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate?
When I decided to go back to school for art in 2010, I thought that Natural Science Illustration would be a great fit for me since my undergraduate degree is in biology. But the individual illustrations left me wondering about the animals I was drawing in my classes. As I focused on rendering each animal’s funny individual expression in my drawings, I started to see them as characters. I was capturing them in one moment—what did they do next? I realized that while I loved drawing and painting plants and animals, I wanted to use my illustrations to explore stories across multiple pages. So that naturally led me to the Children’s Book Illustration program at RISD. Once I started that program, I found that I had so many stories that I wanted to tell with pictures, and that was just the beginning. The first picture book that I illustrated was Noodles’ and Albie’s Birthday Surprise in 2016. And picture books are still my favorite type of book to illustrate, although I would love to try illustrating a graphic novel some day. I draw any time of day that I find the chance unless I am working on a deadline, then it can be all day and well into the night until my project is completed!
You've got such a beautiful style. I am glad you gravitated to children's illustration. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I have loved to draw since I was a little girl living in Titograd, Yugoslavia with my mother. My aunt, who lived in Connecticut, sent us a roll of toilet paper once when we lived in the old country and I used to draw pictures on it. It made a great continuous storyboard and I filled each square with pictures!
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I was fascinated by the pictures in the fairy tale books I read as a child in the former Yugoslavia. I still have most of them; they were one thing that I carried with me in my small plaid suitcase when I came to the US when I was six years old. I left all the toys I had behind for my cousins. My favorite illustrations were from a series of books that featured a main character, Maya, who explored the world (Maya on the Farm, Maya at Sea, Maya at Home…). These were books that were translated from French into my native language, Serbo-Croatian, from the Belgian series that was illustrated by Marcel Marlier. (In French, her name was Martine). His style was so lovely: realistic yet with so many really cute and appealing children and animals.
I am unfamiliar with these books, but I love their illustrations and I enjoyed reading along (here). What captured your attention or imagination with Child of the Sea?
My love for fairytales and love of the sea! I love to read to my little 4-year-old granddaughter, and we both love to collect sea shells, so I was fascinated by the title of this story right away. Also, I remember reading Maxine’s American Girl book, Samantha’s Surprise with my daughter when she was younger. It was one of our favorites. And my little granddaughter loved Marielle in Paris by Maxine. So I was already hooked by her writing and so honored to illustrate one of her books.
How wonderful to be able to illustrate a book for an author you admire. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Child of the Sea? Could you share a few with us?
My conch shell that I’ve had for many years and my RISD seashell drawings that I did many years ago are weaved throughout the story. There were a couple of ink seashells and some watercolor shells that I was able to scan and color on my iPad and use in the book. It’s funny because when I read the story to my little granddaughter she said, “I know where that shell is! It’s on your art table!” Then she wanted to find each shell and listen to the ocean for at least the hundredth time!
Having a conch shell myself and a deep love for seashells, I think she found a great way to spend a day! And I love the way you drew the music of the sea coming from the conch shell on the title page! What's something you want your readers to know about your illustrations in Child of the Sea?
Text © Maxine Rose Schur, 2022. Image © Milanka Reardon, 2022.
I did a lot of research on the many animals found in Scotland as well as the landscape. I tried to include some in each of the drawings. Then when I painted the first spread, the copyright page, I added each of the little animals from each page onto this one big scene. I thought it might be fun for a child to go back and find each one.
Do you have a favorite spread in Child of the Sea? Which one?
Text © Maxine Rose Schur, 2022. Image © Milanka Reardon, 2022.
One of my favorite spreads is Marella swimming with the dolphins. I have that one hanging in my house, right over a view of the lake we live near. I loved painting all of the water scenes because they were so full of joy. I also love the scene where Marella is looking out into the ocean. I tried to create a similar scene in the end with some magical elements that show the love and special connection she continues to have with her loved ones.
I love how you "repeated" that image and the conch shell's music at the end as well. Was there anything that made illustrating Child of the Sea more (or less) challenging than your previous picture books or projects? What do you find is the hardest thing about illustrating picture books?
It is really hard to keep characters consistent and looking the same from scene to scene. I was recuperating from an illness, so my research included drawing from watching movies filmed in Scotland. I had a lot of down time to just draw the characters from different angles and to study the scenery of Scotland. Of course, a trip to Scotland would have been nice. It wasn’t possible due to Covid, but maybe someday I’ll visit and find that place where Merella went out to sea.
I hope you do get to visit Scotland at some point, it's one place I've always wanted to visit as well. What is your favorite medium to work with? Is there another medium you’re itching to try?
I love to draw and to paint with traditional mediums, like watercolor and oil paints. Most of my portraits are done with oil paint. But I’ve found such joy in painting on the iPad too. With my busy lifestyle now, it’s easy to pick up the iPad and paint anywhere and almost any time without having to worry about cleaning brushes.
It's great you get to work with both mediums. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
My two little grandchildren! My drawing skills improve just by observing them. Young children don’t pose; they move and stretch in fun ways and do their own thing. And their facial expressions are priceless! I’m constantly taking pictures. They don’t stand still for long. Also, living on a lake now is such a great source of inspiration. I can’t stop taking pictures and drawing wildlife on the lake.
Great inspirations! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have a picture book that I am in the process of submitting to agents. Nina’s Wall is my debut picture book as an author/illustrator. It is loosely based on my experience as a child when my mother and I emigrated from what was then known as Titograd, Yugoslavia. When Nina arrives in America, she is overcome with memories of her home city of Titograd. She remembers her grandmother and grandfather, and especially the wall that surrounds their garden and extends through the city. When she finds a not so similar looking wall in America, she thinks that if she walks alongside it long enough, it will eventually lead to the old wall and the old wall just might lead her home.
Good luck! This book sounds amazing. If you're curious, Milanka has a few images of Nina's Wall on her website. Did you find anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and illustrating these past couple of years?
My community of wonderful illustrator friends that I have met through my classes at RISD, my time as the illustrator coordinator for New England SCBWI, and even through social media keep me inspired and illustrating. Also, working with wonderful publishers and authors and having deadlines helps a lot!
Deadlines are amazing at doing that. What is your favorite animal? Or an animal you’re currently enamored with. Why?
I’d have to say that dogs are my favorite animals lately. I have done some puppy portraits for Christmas gifts and commissions, and I just love them! I never tire of painting them. They have such wonderful expressions, and I love when I reach that point in a pet portrait when I can recognize that individual and its personality comes out. It’s so much fun, and it usually happens with the eyes. I also love swans. I’ve seen and observed their nests and cygnets in the springtime, and I find such joy in painting them. I have a story for them too that I am working on.
Thank you, Milanka for stopping by and sharing with us. It was delightful to chat with you.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the sneak peek Perfect Picture Book post on Child of the Sea.
To find out more about Milanka Reardon, or contact her: