This Kansas City artist's love letters helped launch a career illustrating children's books
Charlie Mylie felt relief when the pandemic allowed him to give up his "Pop Up Charlie" performance-drawing routine. Now he's a full-time children's book illustrator who is published by major houses.
Charlie Mylie is well into his next big adventure. Not hiking around the perimeter of Kansas City — he’s done that. Nor embarking upon a 38-state drawing tour — that happened some years ago. Not even taking a swing at parenting, which he’s been doing successfully for the past four years. Mylie’s newest undertaking is writing and illustrating children’s books.
Many Kansas Citians might have encountered Mylie during the decade he branded himself “Pop Up Charlie,” when he frequented First Fridays and other local events to sell his sketches for a small sum or a good joke. His spectacle featured a dingy table, cone-shaped gold hat, sequined cape and cardboard sign reading, “Yes it’s true! Pop Up Charlie can draw anything for you!”
When he took the show on the road in 2017, Mylie wrote doodle-adorned letters to Sondy Bojanic, now his wife. This led to the concept of his debut book — 2019’s “Something for You,” from Macmillan, a major New York publishing company.
Composed of soft watercolors and thoughtful outlines, both “Something for You” and its sequel, 2020’s “Anything for You,” follow the journey of a mouse trying to express love for a partner through gifts and ultimately learning that it’s the care we give one another that really matters.
Mylie’s most recent project, “Out on a Limb,” published in mid-February by Abrams, was written by fellow Kansas Citian Jordan Morris. The illustration style differs from Mylie’s first projects, with this one drawn in a moody, charcoaly palette with bright yellow accents. Morris’s story follows the tale of a young girl with a broken leg, a letter lost on its way to her, and how she rediscovers courage in the wake of a long recovery.
The back and forth of collaboration with Morris was a welcome experience for Mylie, who says it fueled his critical thinking in a way solo projects don’t, an opinion Morris shared.
“One thing that Charlie says to me in the process of our collaborating is, ‘You don’t need to say that because I’ll put it in the drawing,’” Morris explains. “I think that makes the work better. It felt good to (work together) because authors and illustrators don’t collaborate very often in the industry. They’re chosen by the publisher and they each have their own vision, so it’s fun to develop a project together.”
“Out on a Limb” was inspired by the experience of Morris’s oldest daughter breaking her leg and Mylie sending her a get-better-soon letter that got lost in the mail. By the time the letter arrived, the leg had healed; but Mylie’s letter provided Morris a valuable chance to reflect with her daughter on what had been a daunting experience.
“Not every book is supposed to be a book read over and over and over,” Mylie says. “Sometimes it’s nice to just have a book there when you need it. Some books are tools and the best ones are subtle tools.”
Morris and Mylie are working together on another piece, though they’re not ready to say anything about it other than that it’s a more light-hearted and humorous book.
Mylie considers himself a creative person first and artist second. Like many art-school graduates, he is deeply disillusioned with an art world sustained by profit and replication. Yet that’s exactly how the picture book industry functions, which could be why Mylie does not consider his illustrations to be art. Borrowing a term from Aldous Huxley, he defines art by its “is-ness.”
“You see an oil painting and it's not just the image, but the texture of the paint and the feel of it,” he explains. “The size of the canvas in relation to your body, its presence. Illustration is not concerned with presence, it's concerned with reproducibility, printability.”
Illustration was not always his focus, however. Mylie entered the Kansas City Art Institute’s Interdisciplinary Art program his junior year, led by Julia Cole at the time (and since discontinued). Cole emphasized the idea of art as a social practice, understanding it as a vital, community-building function that artists are responsible for thoughtfully sharing with the public. Cole became one of Mylie’s most influential mentors and was the first person who encouraged him to combine his doodling hobby with his desire to be an engaged, community-oriented artist.
Shortly after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2009, Mylie befriended Debbie Pettid and Peter Cowdin, the owners of the children's bookstore the Reading Reptile, which is where I met him, because Cowdin and Pettid are my parents. At the bookstore, I watched Mylie undergo an in-depth education in children’s literature. After the Reading Reptile closed, Mylie spent six years working part time as lead concept artist for the Rabbit hOle, Pettid and Cowdin's still-under-construction children's book museum (it's projected to open next year). It was there that he met and began collaborating on creative projects with Morris, who was hired as a graphic and web designer at the Rabbit hOle in 2015. After wrapping up his final projects with the museum last spring, Mylie officially departed in June, 2021.
When COVID-19 hit the U.S., Mylie’s biggest lifestyle adjustment was ending his in-person Pop Up act, which came as a relief.
“Sometimes you just want to have a conversation with somebody and don't want it to feel like a job,” he says.
Mylie finally had enough time to focus on his own books and after the publication of “Something for You,” he decided to pursue book creation full-time.
“It seems really courageous for an artist to stretch when they've succeeded,” he muses while laying out the concept art for upcoming projects.
Mylie calls himself a “people pleaser,” and seems unaware of his own independent streak. Pulling out draft after draft from his cabinet, the work spread out on his table is striking in its stylistic incongruity. Whether through pastels, watercolors, charcoals, pencil, pen or paints, it seems everything Mylie touches tells its own story.
Gloria Cowdin is a Kansas City-based writer. She is an alumna of Sarah Lawrence College in New York and an estate sale enthusiast. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.