Daniel Miyares, 2002 Illustration Major

Daniel Miyares loves to capture the imagination of children. In fact, he does it for a living. Miyares is the author and illustrator of “Pardon Me,” “Float,” “Bring Me a Rock,” and other compelling picture books for young readers. (This hardworking storyteller has also illustrated stories and poems by Kwame Alexander, Langston Hughes, Neil Sedaka, and others.) Either way, his work stands out. Where other kids’ books can be sappy and formulaic, Miyares’ illustrations burst with vivid magic. The source of that enchantment? It helps that he vividly remembers his own childhood in the foothills of South Carolina. And it definitely helps that he studied illustration at Ringling College of Art and Design. There, he soaked up the lessons of life-drawing, lifepainting, and storytelling.

After graduating with a BFA in Illustration in 2002, Miyares headed west to Kansas City where he now lives with his wife and two children. After a successful stint as a freelance illustrator, Miyares published his first kids’ book in 2010—and never stopped or slowed down. In fact, he was happily sketching away while we had the following phone conversation.

Pardon the ancient question—but where do you get your story ideas?
DM: The short answer is my own dysfunction! I look for the pinch points in my own life—struggles with relationships, career, whatever. I feel like a good story comes from a good problem.

In a perfect world there’d be no stories.
Well, no good ones. “It was a great day today—just like yesterday!” Who wants to read that?

What instructors had an impact on you at Ringling College?
Don Brandes, Regan Dunnick, Mike Hodges, Fiore Custode, Jeff Schwartz, and Dolores Coe, to name a few. The list could go on and on.

What were some of their key lessons?
They all stressed the importance of finding your own unique voice. When you’re starting out as an illustrator, it’s critical to walk in the shoes of those who’ve already mastered your craft. As you mature, you need to boil down those lessons to what’s uniquely you.

You find your own style, as opposed to copying somebody else’s.
Exactly. Building up an amazing arsenal of technical skills isn’t enough; how you deploy those skills is what sets you apart as a storyteller.

In terms of self-expression? Or marketing?
Both, really. You have to see your illustration as a brand and a business. Today’s world is flooded with visual content. To survive, you have to stand out! But once you make your voice heard, you can tell your story. Stories are powerful; good storytellers can change the world—why else would you want to tell stories in the first place? My instructors all stressed that the “why” behind your art is just as important as the “how.”

You’ve been making art for children for years. What have you learned?
I’ve stopped trying to paint or draw what something looks like. Now, my goal is to capture how it feels. A child reading “Pardon Me” doesn’t care what kind of bird he’s looking at; they care about how the bird feels. It took me awhile to learn that—now I want to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of every image.

We spoke about finding your “style.” But you’ve got more than one style! You can be stylized and colorful— or realistic and black-and-white.
To me, the style has to serve the story. I start from the emotional heart of the story—and everything flows from that. Not just the style—even the paper stock and the format. If the story’s introspective, you want a book you can hold in your hands. A grandiose story should unfold in a suitably panoramic book.

Has your choice of media evolved over the years?
It’s constantly evolving. I’d say my most dramatic change is a move away from digital media. I’ve been doing a lot more traditional painting in my work—which has both benefits and drawbacks.

You can’t undo a brushstroke.
No, there’s no command-Z in painting. But, like I said, I want the feelings of my characters to come through. When I start with a blank piece of paper and paint it edge-to-edge, I get to the emotional heart of it all much quicker.

What’s the first commandment for children’s authors?
Don’t talk down to children. They have the same hopes, dreams, and fears as adults. The only difference is that kids still believe in magic.

Which can be wonderful—or scary.
As a child, I kind of liked being scared! That’s why “Where the Wild Things Are” was so cool. Those monsters could eat Max up at any moment! But he had them under his thumb. “He tamed them with the magic trick.” I believed in that magic as a kid. Children are wonderfully open to new ideas, and it’s extremely important that you respect that as a storyteller. For example, my next book is set in the 1940s. I had to find a plausible excuse to give my main character a bicycle helmet. Kids didn’t wear them in that era—but I know kids in this era might follow my character’s example.

What drives you to write and illustrate for children?
Not to be Pollyanna about it, but children are the future. If you can win their hearts with compelling stories and illustrations, they can hopefully create a better world. That doesn’t mean preaching to children. But if you can capture a child’s imagination and encourage them to dream big? That’s where it’s at, man.


By Marty Fugate | Images courtesy of Daniel Miyares
Marty Fugate is a Sarasota-based art critic, cartoonist, and science fiction writer.