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."
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