Five years ago, Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson collaborated for the first time on Last Stop on Market Street, a picture book in which a boy learns truths from his grandmother while the two ride a San Francisco city bus to their destination: a soup kitchen. In February, public transportation will yet again provide a colorful background to an even more poignant and timely tale by de la Peña and Robinson, about a boy who rides the New York City subway with his older sister and makes an important realization at his final destination: a prison.

Milo Imagines the World is scheduled for release by Putnam Books for Young Readers on February 2, 2021, with a 150,000-copy first printing. In a PW exclusive, the cover is revealed here for the first time.

Milo Imagines the World is their third picture book collaboration: besides Last Stop on Market Street, which received the 2016 Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor, they are also the creators of Carmela Full of Wishes (2018).

In Milo Imagines the World, a budding young artist named Milo lives with his grandmother in New York City. Once a week, he and his older sister take the subway to visit their incarcerated parent. During the long ride, Milo studies the other subway riders and draws pictures of their lives as he imagines them. One day, he sees a well-dressed boy riding the subway, and draws him in a castle with a drawbridge. To Milo’s surprise, the boy gets off at the same stop and waits in the same long line at the prison to visit his own parent.

While Last Stop on Market Street was close to de la Peña’s heart, he told PW, because it was a tale inspired by childhood memories of his grandmother, Milo Imagines the World is equally close to Robinson’s heart because it was inspired by his childhood. He lived with his grandmother and took long subway rides through Los Angeles once a week to visit his mother in prison, because the family did not own a car.

“Milo’s story is my story,” Robinson said. “Like Milo, I grew up with an incarcerated parent. As a child, I felt a lot of shame and embarrassment. It was difficult not all that long ago to talk about it. I recognize that my story is not that unique. I feel compelled to let kids who feel the shame I felt then know that they’re not alone: their experience matters.”

De la Peña pointed out that while the U.S. contains 4% of the world’s population, it also contains 25% of the world’s imprisoned people. “Who gets caught up in that?” he asked. “People of color.” The racial disparities between the prison population and the general population really hit him, he said, when he visited three Minnesota prisons to lead writing workshops while in the Twin Cities for Teen Lit Con in 2015. “In those prisons, 95% of the people were people of color, while 95% of the people at the literary festival were white,” he recalled.

According to de la Peña’s research, women are the fastest growing population incarcerated in U.S. prisons. “Children share that sentence with their mother,” he pointed out, disclosing that the gender of Milo’s parent is not revealed until the end, so as to “play with expectations,” just as was done in Last Stop on Market Street, “where you don’t know where they’re going.” An important takeaway from Milo Imagines the World, de la Peña points out, is the “laziness of stereotypes: we make assumptions and it’s always so much more complicated” in actuality.

Robinson’s Wish Becomes a Reality

Both de la Peña and Robinson recalled in separate interviews that Milo Imagines the World was conceived almost two years ago in a Barnes & Noble café in Fairfax, Va. during their Carmela Full of Wishes tour. The two were having coffee and talking before the event began.

“You go on tour with someone, you end up having some intimate conversations,” de la Peña noted, “Christian said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do something about a child with a parent who is incarcerated.’ I feel like he’d been moving towards doing something super-personal for a while.”

Robinson recalls that after revealing his wish to create such a picture book, de la Peña “had a spark in his eye” and “disappeared for 30 minutes,” returning with a rough draft of what became Milo Imagines the World.

While there was some debate early on about the setting: with Robinson initially preferring that Milo Imagines the World be set in the San Francisco Bay Area where he used to live, de la Peña was adamant that it should be set in New York. The iconic New York City subway system is “so distinct and unique,” Robinson said. “And everyone has to sit close together. Matt was right.”

Throughout the process, Robinson said, he and de la Peña worked closely in shaping the book. “We trust each other. It was a back-and-forth, such as when something worked rhythmically, but not image-wise,” he explained, “We have a conversation that happens—I’ve never had that with another author.”

“At its core, it’s Christian’s story,” de la Peña added. “But he didn’t try to micro-manage it.”

De la Peña said that not only have the two established a strong connection in the past five years,, but they complement each other well. “Sometimes my text is a bit heavy for a picture book; his illustrations temper that heavy text with whimsy and joy. He’s one person I want to do more books with, because I know he’ll bring joy to it.”

Discussing their professional relationship, de la Peña noted that he feels as if the two “have fallen into this space where we get to do socially conscious books, but we try to make sure that our stories are also fun and center a childlike sensibility.”

Putnam senior editor Stephanie Pitts describes working with both creators as a “dream project.” De la Peña, she said, “writes like a poet” and Robinson’s illustrations contain “so much hope, even with difficult subject matter.” She appreciated, she said, that the two “don’t shy away from it, but show it in such a way that there’s hope and love.”

Robinson said that his illustrations are a combination of his research into the New York City subway system (which he has encountered during trips there from his Sacramento home), and his emotional connection to the topic, which colored his depictions of the other people riding the subway and visiting the prison. “We all have a memory bank of personalities and types of people we’re familiar with,” he noted.

While Milo Imagines the World might strike many as political, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, “at the end of the day,” de la Peña said, “this is a book about a little boy. Who is this boy and how is he trying to process the world? His mother’s incarceration is a small part of the plot, but it becomes the umbrella of the whole story—the umbrella by which his life exists, that he takes with him wherever he goes. His mother’s incarceration is not part of the story, but it permeates the story.”