One of the most important lessons to teach your child is not to judge others by their appearances. What you see on the surface cannot tell you what is going on inside and the stories people have to share about their lives will often surprise you.
This is one of the wonderful premises of Milo Imagines The World, an uplifting yet emotionally complex picture book by the award-winning pairing of author Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson.
The story follows a young boy called Milo and his big sister as they take their monthly train journey to somewhere the reader has yet to discover.
The lad is feeling like a “shook-up soda” and passes the journey by sketching pictures in his notepad of the other passengers, imagining the lives they lead when they depart the carriage.
There’s a man going home to his fifth floor flat where he lives with his cats, a bride who goes up in a hot air balloon and a troop of female breakdancers who are watched wherever they go, even when they’re not dancing.
When another boy a similar age gets on and sits opposite, Milo sees his neatly parted hair, smart suit and new white trainers and assumes he is a prince with a castle, horse-drawn carriage and butler.
What do people see when they look at me, Milo wonders, drawing pictures of his own life.
Soon it is time for Milo to leave the train and he is surprised to see the other boy nervously walking in the same direction – towards the metal detector outside the prison. They might look different but they are both heading to visit their mums inside.
It’s a sucker punch handled with incredibly sensitivity.
We talk about needing greater diversity in children’s books and the discussion tends to focus on better female and racial representation, and making people with disabilities more visible within stories.
But another way in which we are doing young readers a disservice is by failing to portray the array of family types and socioeconomic backgrounds that exist. How often do we see single parent households or kids who live in flats without a garden? What about children who are in foster care or who have two dads?
Milo’s story shows characters and lives that are sadly underrepresented and does it in a way that is easy for young children to comprehend.
The orange prison jumpsuits are immediately recognisable to the parent reading the book, but Baby Bookworm merely saw a child separated from his mum making a much wanted visit. I guess as the child in that situation would. No judgement, just circumstance.
The artwork in this book is whimsical, colourful and bursting with joy, combining scenes of Milo’s day with pages from his sketchpad. I love the double page spreads that look like his book is open, his hands resting on the page. It feels like you are stood in his shoes.
It’s completely evocative of riding the New York subway too, especially with the breakdancers spinning on their heads in the middle of the carriage. I used to live in the city many years before the boys were born and it gave me a lovely feeling of nostalgia for the energy and diversity it has.
Illustrator Christian Robinson’s portrayal of the story is particularly poignant because his mother was also in prison for most of his childhood. She suffered with addictions and mental health problems, and his father left Christian and his brother to be raised by his grandmother when he was a baby.
He has said that Milo’s story is his story and he too sought solace in his imagination and drawing.
This outlet was to be a source of hope and to lead to inspiring books like Milo Imagines The World – and this beautiful final image. It’s a drawing that Milo gives to his mum, of happier and simpler times ahead.
Milo Imagines The World by Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson. £12.99 (hardback), Two Hoots. Buy from Amazon