KTEP - El Paso, Texas

A Boy Named 'Milo' Reminds Us To Choose Imagination Over Impressions

Feb 14, 2021

Sitting on the subway beside his big sister, young Milo is "a shook-up soda." He feels "excitement stacked on top of worry on top of confusion on top of love." The kids are on their way to visit their mother, who is incarcerated.

Milo Imagines the World is the third book from author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Christian Robinson — the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Honor winning duo behind Last Stop on Market Street and Carmela Full of Wishes.

"It's about a boy who is a budding artist and he's looking at all the interesting people around him on the subway ride, and he's imagining their lives as a way to pass the time," de la Peña says.

Robinson had a lot of fun creating two worlds in the book. "We see the real world that Milo exists in, but we also see the world inside his head," he says.

The last time they were on book tour together, de la Peña and Robinson were sitting together in a café discussing which project they should work on next. Robinson had been thinking about telling his own story.

"My mother struggled with addiction and mental health and was in and out of prison most of my childhood," Robinson says. His father was also absent.

Robinson's grandmother raised him — along with his brother, two cousins, and an aunt — in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles.

G.P Putnam's Sons

"Making pictures was certainly my way of having some say over the world and what things could look like," he says. "It was a way to have some control over my circumstances."

He remembers that "shook-up soda" feeling that Milo has on the subway. "You're just feeling anxiety and nerves. You feel as a kid, even though it's your parent who's being punished, you feel punished. You know, when someone you love is serving time, you're serving time along with them. I just remember a lot of pain, embarrassment, guilt and shame."

De la Peña connected with the idea of a child who is constantly imagining and reimagining the world around him. In the latest installment of our "Picture This" series, we brought the author and illustrator together to discuss their collaboration — below are excerpts from their conversation.

De la Peña: You have two audiences for a picture book. You have the parent and you have the child. And I'm really conscious right now about leaning toward the child and the psychology of a child. This is sort of something I took from Where the Wild Things Are, when Max goes into his dreamspace, we really see his psychology.

Robinson: For me, the process of actually illustrating this book was I was almost like becoming Milo. I had to go back to all the times that I was on the bus or the subway. And when I was looking around at all the people around me, what was I imagining about them? What were the things that they were doing? ...

Milo is an observer. So I thought, why not give him glasses? I wanted to give emphasis to his eyes because that is what he is using to view the world. And but I also wanted to make him feel like small and little and not seen ... so he's like covered and bundled in all these clothes, but his sister is a bit more outgoing and bright. She has this really bright pink jacket ... very fashionable.

I was also thinking about, like, how often times are people going through certain experiences, but you would never know they were going through that because on the outside they just look so put together and like everything's going for them.

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson / G.P Putnam's Sons

De la Peña: What this book is really trying to do is dismantle the concept of stereotypes. So I think Milo has this epiphany in the story that he's seen a certain way and that doesn't feel good. And so he has to square that he's doing the same thing to other people. He's taking small bits of information and making judgments. ...

What I love about working with Christian ... [is] I take some of these heavier ideas, I give them to Christian, and I feel like he's the one who makes them a picture book. He adds whimsy and there's just an element of fun that kind of undercuts some of the seriousness I give to him in manuscript form.

Robinson: In this story and ... many of the books that me and Matt have worked on, we're dealing with, you know, real world situations. In Carmela Full of Wishes, it's a daughter who has a parent who's been deported. And in Last Stop [on Market Street], at the end of the journey is a soup kitchen.

And so I guess Matt is like giving us a taste of the real world. And all I'm doing is just reminding ... that, yeah, there's challenges, there's greediness, but there's also beauty. And there's joy in all these experiences. And I think that's what we're trying to do, is just honor the lives of everyday people, working class people.

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson / G.P Putnam's Sons

De la Peña: Traditionally, a book like Milo Imagines the World might be sort of set aside for, you know, kids in underprivileged schools or kids who have incarcerated parents. But I just hope more and more that this is a book that is shared with kids who don't have that experience so they can understand that Milo is a complex young boy. And this is just one part of his background.

Robinson: I feel like right now especially, it's so important that we're telling stories that ask each other to take a second look and to not make those easy, quick judgments about each other. ...

As a kid, of course, not having my my mother there was painful, certainly, but probably even more painful thing was holding on to that experience myself and internalizing it and feeling disconnected, not having that connection with others. So I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, to create empathy and compassion.

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson / G.P Putnam's Sons

Samantha Balaban and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In "Milo Imagines The World," a young boy takes a long subway ride through New York City with his older sister. They're on their way to visit their mother, who's incarcerated.

MATT DE LA PENA: At face value, it's about a boy who is a budding artist, and he's looking at all the interesting people around him on the subway ride. And he's imagining their lives as a way to pass the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Milo Imagines The World" is the third book from writer Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson, the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Honor-winning duo behind "Last Stop On Market Street" and "Carmela Full Of Wishes."

CHRISTIAN ROBINSON: The illustrations in this book were made with paint and collage. Those are usually my go-to materials. And something that I had a lot of fun with in this book was we see the real world that Milo exists in, but we also see the world inside his head.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On one page, there's Milo sitting on the train with his sister. A woman in a wedding dress gets off at Midtown. As de la Pena writes, Milo imagines the Grand Cathedral ceremony where the couple will be pronounced husband and wife. And Christian Robinson illustrates Milo's crayon drawing of the man and the woman in a church. Their guests - circular, smiley faces. The idea for the book, says de la Pena, came while on their last book tour.

DE LA PENA: Christian and I were sitting in a cafe, and we were talking about what story do we want to put into the world next? And then Christian at one point said, well, I've really started to think about telling my own story.

ROBINSON: Yeah. So first off, I was raised by my grandmother. I always have to honor her. She not only took care of me. She was a caregiver to my brother, to my two cousins, to my aunt. And we all lived in this tiny, one-bedroom apartment in LA. My mother struggled with addiction and mental health and was in and out of prison most of my childhood. And I do remember the feelings that Matt describes in the book, a shook-up soda, you know? You're just feeling anxiety and nerves. As a kid, even though it's your parent who's being punished, you feel punished. You know, when someone you love is serving time, you're serving time along with them.

DE LA PENA: So it began with that conversation. And then I had enough experience working with Christian that I got excited about setting him up to do things that would be super fun for him. Great illustrators don't just draw what they read in the words. They tell a separate story that sort of mingles with the text. And by the way, it was kind of fun to just give Christian very, very little text - just, oh, he could have done this or this or this. And then I was basically, like, pass it over to Christian and say, OK. Now, what are you going to do with that? (Laughter).

ROBINSON: Matt's being humble. He gave me some notes (laughter). There were a little notes, but they were just enough to give me those wings to fly. For me, the process of actually illustrating this book - I was almost, like, becoming Milo. I had to go back to all the times that I was on the bus or the subway. And when I was looking around at all the people around me, what was I imagining about them? What were the things that they were doing? I also just think about those little details that, like, can tell you more about a person visually, right?

Milo is an observer. So I thought, why not give them glasses? I wanted to give emphasis to his eyes because that is what he's using to view the world. But I also wanted to make him feel like small and little and not seen maybe, so he's like covered and bundled and all these clothes. But his sister is a bit more outgoing and bright. She has this really bright pink jacket. She's also kind of very fashionable. And I was also thinking about, like, how, often times there are people going through certain experiences but you would never know because, on the outside, they just look so put together and, like, everything's going for them. So like Milo, I was challenging myself and not relying on those simple, basic stereotypes about, oh, the people going to prison look like this. And the people who don't look like that. And I guess I was really just channeling Milo.

DE LA PENA: And it's interesting because this always happens to me. I don't really know what the book is about until I finish. And then I'm looking at it over and over again, and then I usually have an epiphany of, oh, my gosh. I see what this is about. And Christian kind of just spoke to that.

What this book is really trying to do is dismantle the concept of stereotypes. I think Milo has this epiphany in the story that he's seen a certain way, and that doesn't feel good. And so he has to square that he's doing the same thing to other people. He's taking small bits of information and making judgments. And I think this is kind of important to me as a writer. Traditionally, a book like "Milo Imagines The World" might be sort of set aside for, you know, kids in underprivileged schools or kids who have incarcerated parents. But I just hope more and more that this is a book that is shared with kids who don't have that experience so they can understand that Milo is a complex, young boy. And the fact that he's incarcerated parent is just one of the things that define him.

ROBINSON: You know, as a gay man, I love that there's even a subtle LGBTQ nod in there. He reimagines this married couple now as two women. And I feel like, right now especially, it's so important that we're telling stories that ask each other to take a second look and to not make those easy, quick judgments around - about each other.

Hearing you just speak now, Matt, reminded me that as a kid, of course not having my my mother there was painful, certainly. But probably the even more painful thing was holding on to that experience myself and internalizing it and not having that connection with others. I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, create empathy and compassion. And so we're just excited to have this out in the world and to share it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was illustrator Christian Robinson and author of Matt de la Pena talking about their latest children's book, "Milo Imagines The World."

(SOUNDBITE OF KERO ONE SONG, "MUSICAL JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.