Matt De La Peña: Milo Imagines the World

Illustrated by Christian Robinson

Published by Two Hoots, Pan Macmillan, 2021

“What begins as a slow, distant glow grows and grows into a tired train that clatters down the tracks. A cool rush of wind quiets into a screech of steel and when the doors slide open, Milo slips aboard.”

I love the emotive, poetic language of this picture book. I feel like I am with Milo in the underground railway station, feeling that breeze that comes before the train arrives and hearing that screech as it slows approaching the platform.

I admire Milo’s imagination and the way he observes everyone and everything around him in the train carriage. A whiskered man with a face of concentration, a woman in a wedding dress whose face is made out of light, and a dog whose face he can’t see at all, but he can see that pink tongue peeking out amongst the whiskers.

We are not sure where Milo and his big sister are going, but we know that this is a trip they take together once a month on Sundays. We know that Milo has mixed emotions: confusion, love and worry.  To help cope and keep himself from bursting, he observes and draws and imagines.

Milo imagines where that whiskered man might live, perhaps in a high-rise apartment with cats and rats and parakeets. Milo draws all these ideas on his notepad and tries to show his big sister, but she is too absorbed in her phone to take much notice.

At one stop, the woman in the wedding dress steps onto the platform while street performers play a wedding march tune. Milo imagines and draws a beautiful ceremony in a grand cathedral, after which the happy couple fly away in a colourful hot air balloon.

Soon a boy who looks quite different to Milo boards the train with his dad. Milo imagines what this boy’s life might be like: horse drawn carriages, castles, guards and servants fill his notepad. A life very different from Milo’s experiences, but something that he can still imagine.

A group of girls jump on board at the next stop and start break dancing in the carriage to collect a few coins. Milo imagines them dancing in all the carriages, being looked at there with smiles and interest. He also imagines what life is like for them outside the carriage, being observed in department stores and in well-to-do neighbourhoods. There are no smiles now, just suspicion and intolerance.

Milo then tries to imagine what people see when they look at him. Small, brown skin, glasses perched on his nose. Can people see him at school, at home, in his aunty’s apartment?

Finally, the train brings them to their stop. We walk with Milo and his big sister to a place where there is a metal detector and guards. The other boy on the train is there too, with his dad. Milo did not imagine this and he is surprised. Maybe, you can’t really imagine what a person’s life is like when you look at them. So, Milo re-imagines the people on the train that he observed and puts them in a different setting, gives them different lives.

And to his mother, in prison, Milo gives the best picture of all: a home, a cat on the windowsill, a green tree, a front door, and a mother, daughter and son enjoying the day in each other’s company, eating ice cream.

There are a lot of ideas and thoughts packed into this picture book. I can highly recommend it for children 6-8 years, to begin discussions about prejudice, racism, perceptions, assumptions, empathy, and all the ways you can use your imagination. Below are some suggestions for picture books which explore the themes of racism, prejudice and preconceived notions about the people we encounter in life:

The Same But Different Too
by Karl Newson
Illustrated by Kate Hindley

I Walk with Vanessa by Kerascoet

You Matter by Christian Robinson

Nana Akua Goes to School
by Tricia Elam Walker
Illustrated by April Harrison

Where Are You From?
by Yamile Saied Mendez
Illustrated by Jaime Kim

Malala’s Magic Pencil
by Malala Yousafzai
Illustrated by Kerascoet

The Proudest Blue
by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali Illustrated by Hatem Aly

Say Something!
by Peter H. Reynolds

All Are Welcome
by Alexandra Penfold
Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

Black is a Rainbow Color
by Angela Joy
Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

The Day You Begin
by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Shu Lin’s Grandpa
by Matt Goodfellow
Illustrated by Yu Rong

Skin Again by Bell Hooks
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Room on our Rock
by Kate & Jol Temple
Illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton

Rosa Parks by Lisbeth Kaiser Illustrated by Marta Antelo

Mary Anning by
Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara Illustrated by Popy Matigot

Diamonds by Armin Greder

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