Book Review: Milo Imagines the World – layers of understanding and empathy

words by Matt de la Peña, pictures by Christian Robinson, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Random House, 2021

There’s something about meeting an author, hearing them speak, that forms a connection that lasts. A few years ago, my son’s daycare had the very great good fortune to host Matt de la Peña for a day. He spent time with the children, and did a talk in the evening for the teachers and parents. I was transfixed. But it clearly lingered for my son as well, because just recently his class was reading Milo Imagines the World (over Zoom) and I heard him shouting at the tablet – he was bouncing up and down in his excitement to explain that he had met Matt de la Peña, and even though it was over a quarter of his life ago, he felt that on-going connection.

As soon as I saw that Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson had a new book out, I was keen to read it to the kids myself. We enjoyed both Last Stop On Market Street and Carmela Full of Wishes that they produced together, so were eager for this one.

Milo Imagines the World lives up to every expectation. It’s a subtle, sensitive book, illustrated in part with pictures of Milo himself, and his sister, as they travel on the New York subway to visit their mother, and in part with Milo’s own drawings; Christian Robinson’s rendition of Milo’s childhood art is both realistic and full of expression – Milo is a talented artist. Milo’s destination is unnamed, but it’s clear that his mother is incarcerated somewhere, and he and his sister visit her once a month.

This book is rich with empathy and with entry points to complex conversations. At its heart is a lesson: don’t judge by appearances. But this book teams with layers. Seeing that he has more in common with one boy than he first thought unlocks Milo’s imagination to give the other people he encounters wider, richer, happier lives. My three year old loves the picture at the end – Milo’s drawing for his mother, eating ice-cream on their front steps. My seven year old wants to ask questions. Why is his mother in jail? Is that what they wear? And underlying it, how could a mother be in jail? So we talk, about how people do end up in jail even if they’re not bad people, or didn’t mean to do anything bad, and I start to add shades of grey to the black and white world that so many of his favourite TV shows portray. People are so rarely wholly bad, or wholly good. The contradictions and struggles of humanity, the inequality in the justice system, are all conversations still to come. But with every book, I feel we can trust Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson to open spaces for those conversations, spaces full of compassion – not hiding the grit of life from children, but giving them ways to understand and navigate it. I know my son and I will trust them to lead us there.

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