Review of the Day: Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, ill. Christian Robinson
Milo Imagines the World
By Matt de la Peña
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
On shelves now.
The human brain loves to form assumptions. Long ago that adaptive quality could potentially lead to enduring survival. When Homo sapiens were tromping about 250,000 years ago, the ability to size up a potential friend or foe instantaneously could mean the difference between life or death. But what serves you well on the ancient plains, running from a lion, does not serve you particularly well when making snap judgments in the 21st century. We form instant thoughts and feelings about the strangers that surround us based on the most superfluous of things. We don’t just do it to people either. We might do it to books. We might . . . ah . . . we might do it to a certain book that’s sitting on my lap right now. You see I haven’t always (how do I put this?) felt the full weight of the Robinson/de la Peña partnership’s charm offensive. Last Stop on Market Street and Carmela Full of Wishes struck me as good dry runs. Strong running leaps towards something they still had yet to attain. But now, looking at Milo Imagines the World I know what they were leaping for. Milo combines the messaging of those other two books with a gut punch ending and a slow sinking in of the story at its core. Smart and sweet, it could teach you a thing or two about false conclusions. I can attest to that.
Milo and his older sister are taking their monthly Sunday subway ride. On the train there are a variety of different fellow riders, like the businessman with the blank lonely face or the woman in a wedding dress with a pup in her handbag. To distract himself from what he’s now feeling, Milo draws the lives of the people around him. Maybe that bride is off to her wedding. Maybe that boy in a suit has servants and gourmet crust-free sandwich squares waiting for him at home. But if this is what Milo thinks of these people, what must they assume about him? It really isn’t until Milo sees that the boy in the suit is going to the same place that he is that he starts to rethink things. The stories he made up earlier shift and grow kinder. And then, there’s his mom. It’s visiting hours at her correctional facility, and Milo shows her one picture he doesn’t want to change: The three of them eating ice cream on a stoop on a beautiful summer day.
Milo isn’t the first picture book one might encounter about having an incarcerated parent by a long shot. What makes it stand out is the simple fact that Milo’s mom isn’t the focus of the book and merely supports its message. Other books like Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson or A Card for My Father by Samantha Thornhill, or Hazelnut Days by Emmanuel Bourdier all zero in squarely on the relationship between the child and the parent. Milo takes this a step further. It moves away from the uniqueness of the situation, instead focusing on the near normality of visiting an imprisoned mom. This is just a part of Milo’s life and he’s now reaching the age when you begin to put the pieces together that shape your world. He’s realizing that even the simple act of assigning subway strangers different roles means falling back on a simplistic narrative. It’s only when he begins to rework his own assumptions about the other boy on the subway car that he’s able to also rework the other stories he drew as well. Marvelously, the book shows us in a clear cut way how one person can be challenged by their own assumptions and how that change gives them new eyes on the world.
Much of this credit falls on Matt’s text. If Last Stop on Market Street was focused on public transportation in the form of a bus, Milo Imagines the World prefers public transportation in the form of a subway car. That makes a lot of sense too. Subway car rides are relatively smooth so it’s not hard to draw. You can interact more easily with strangers on a subway car than a bus too. And since most of the action in this story is on that train, the book takes on the feeling of a one-act play. Milo must, with minimal human interactions, come to a complex understanding of how the human mind works and how he personally (and through him, the child reader) can take steps to avoid its tricks and traps. I liked too the fact that we’re seeing the world through Milo’s filter, and the minimal dialogue is a boon to Matt’s writing. It allows the reader the chance to concentrate on the writing, particularly when Matt gets to describe one of Milo’s scenes. For example, the man in the green hat lives in a fifth floor walk-up where, “Parakeets tweet songs of longing as the man sips tepid soup, hunched over a game of solitaire.” Later he watches the little boy ahead of him in line go through the metal detector. “Milo studies the boy in the suit, his dad rubbing his thin shoulders.” And then, the revelation that is so simple you’d think even grown-ups would get it: “Maybe you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face.” Maybe.
I used to live in Manhattan. Lived there eleven years or so, and over the years I’ve seen an awful lot of picture books set there. For whatever reason, you can always tell when a book set in New York is made by someone who has never lived there or hasn’t lived there in years. Yep, I always peer extra closely at any book that lays claim to NYC as its location. Now Matt’s a Brooklyn man and it shows. The New York he writes about here has all the discomfort and wonder and casual peculiarities of the city. Sitting on the subway you might definitely see a bride with blue hair holding a pole. And when she disembarks the buskers would most certainly burst out with a rendition of “Here Comes the Bride,” absolutely! But Christian on the other hand lives in what I believe is Northern California. In other words, the antithesis of the Big Apple itself. Is it apparent on the page? Well, I appreciated that he used a real subway system (the 4,5, 6) and that made me want to figure out where Milo’s mom is being held. But the Bayview Correctional Facility is closer to the C and E trains, so I for a second there I thought maybe that this book was way off base. That is UNTIL I noticed that Milo and his sister get off of an A train at their last stop, so that may mean they transferred somewhere and the A train is running on the C line. But even basic logistics aside, look at the detail work here. The rivets on the painted metal pillars in the subway stations. The raised yellow circles on the edges of the platform. You’d never guess Christian didn’t live in NYC for years and years. He has an eye for authenticity and detail that does a reader proud. He even put Starbucks coffee cups on the ground outside of the garbage cans. Could anything be more New York than that?
Please bear in mind too that what Christian Robinson does with his acrylic pants and collages and digital art is exceedingly difficult. He must use all his skills to render something simply. Which is to say, he has to take complex visuals and simplify them to the point where brushstrokes can convey a slice of an entire city. Now that’s a challenge, but one that Christian is fairly used to at this point. They don’t hand you Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Honors for just being a nice guy (which, by all accounts, he is). What makes this book different is that he is also put in the position of having to draw what Milo is drawing. That’s right. He has to make art that looks like a kid would make it. AND he has to make that art significantly different from his own. So what does he do? He doubles down on that simplicity I was talking about earlier. No paints, just what appears to be crayons and colored pencils (though those aren’t listed on the publication page, so I guess they’re all digital too). And then on top of all that, he’s gotta make one of Milo’s drawings carry the emotional weight of the final wordless image of the book. Some folks prefer Christian’s work when it gets all fancy. I prefer it when it becomes as simple as can be.
Did you notice that when we’re looking at the cover, at the publication and title page, and under the book’s jacket at the physical book itself, Christian Robinson puts us into Milo’s mind, seeing the things he’s imagining everywhere? Yet when the book’s story starts up you’re outside of Milo and the world shifts back to normality. I was staring under the jacket of this book for a while when it occurred to me that the best picture books, the ones that really get under your skin (and that apparently give me roundabout 1,371 words of praise with which to write reviews) are ineffable. You can’t really define what it is about them that makes them work as well as they do. The elements at work in Milo Imagines the World should, potentially, work for any number of books out there. Instead, this is the book that I continue to think about long after I’ve put it down or read it to my kids. The internet, that brain outside our brains, relies so heavily on snap judgments. People are heroes or villains. The world is black or white. And all that complexity that makes up a human being gets ironed out on the digital page. Sometimes, it’s the picture books that prove to be the best corrective. Read this book to a child when you yourself need to remember that the world is full of horrible, wonderful, complicated people and that there are millions of their stories out there just waiting to be learned.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Three videos, very different. Completely related:
Finally, see some additional spreads and a BookPage review over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2021, Reviews, Reviews 2021
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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