Milo Imagines the World (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)
Written by Matt de la Peña
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
For ages: 4-8
I adore Matt de la Peña’s work, and Milo Imagines the World is his best to date. This is the sort of book that came along at the exact right moment to speak to both children and adults. It talks to us about the assumptions we make about strangers and how these are often wrong. There’s undoubtedly a survival mechanism behind our brains’ ability to try and paint a mental picture of unfamiliar people. The phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one that touches on our relationships with strangers as well as literature. So you might see the cover of this fabulous book and think you know what it is. Like myself, you would be wrong.
Milo and his older sister are taking their weekly Sunday subway ride. The destination isn’t revealed until later, which plays into our assumptions about the protagonist. Milo gets out his sketchbook and people-watches. When he sees someone that interests him, he draws what he imagines their life at home might be like. A sour-looking passenger lives in a rat-infested apartment. A doorman outside a lovely building yells at a group of boisterous teenagers wearing colorful clothes. A boy wearing a suit lived surrounded by servants.
Milo is entirely wrong, though with a gut punch that reveals the destination of his trip, a city jail. Milo’s mother is incarcerated there, and so is the mother of the little boy in the suit. This sudden realization of how wrong he was causes Milo to revisit his subway sketches. Now he imagines private lives full of love and family, a stark difference from when he first saw these people. De la Peña’s language is rich and descriptive, some of the most vital writing I’ve seen in a picture book in years. The illustrations by Christian Robinson are child-like yet not simple; they burst with color and perfectly capture the feel of a child’s thoughts. The story told here is vital for children everywhere. In my opinion, this is a required text for every primary classroom in the 21st century.
1. This is a fantastic book to introduce younger students to the idea of implicit bias. You could prepare images that might surprise children (male nurse, blind person reading braille, wheelchair basketball players). Ask the children if anything about these images surprises them and discuss what media has made them think people are limited to be.
2. Because Milo’s mother is in jail, there are a lot of assumptions people might make about her. With your student, make a list of five great things about Milo’s mom. Have students use details from the text and pictures to find these beautiful things.
3. Have students brainstorm a personal narrative (drawing and/or short essay) about a time they learned something about a person that surprised them. It could be someone they personally know or a famous figure. Please make sure they spend time writing about their assumption, the truth, and why they felt surprised.
All Because You Matter (Orchard Books)
Written by Tami Charles
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
For ages: 4-8
One of the most infuriating things in the current discourse in America is the willing refusal to acknowledge the meaning of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Among certain groups, they pretend as if it means to elevate Black lives above others rather than its actual intention: to give value to the lives of a group of people continually harmed in American society. Black children constantly see and hear about people who look like them murdered by police or civilians. Then the people who can change the broken systems are entirely unwilling. To contemplate the psychological/emotional/spiritual pain, these children have to feel can be overwhelming. Imagine how they must feel. Tami Charles wants to help these children feel beautiful and empowered despite society trying to marginalize them.
Charles speaks to “you, dear child.” She speaks as a mother, a teacher, a caregiver. This beautifully illustrated poem begins by talking about how the child’s ancestors dreamed of them for generations; the arrival of this child was an event like no other. Every challenge they overcame, every slight they suffered, was all to get to where this fantastic child was born. The narrator acknowledges the sad reality of things, invoking the names Trayvon/Tamir/Philando. Despite the protestations of ill-intended “parent groups,” Black children know these names, and no amount of book banning can silence the truth. The book does not focus on the tragedies, but Charles knows it would be dishonest to pretend they didn’t happen.
Charles has stated she wrote this book to provide a starting point to discuss race in 21st century America. It is centered in a place of love and care; the word “matter” is so important. Black children’s lives matter, and that is something many have to be actively told because the world at large is not relaying the message. The book exists to encourage children never to forget they are loved by the people they know but also those in their family and community even if they passed long before that child was even a thought. This isn’t just a well-meaning flowery text meant to make the reader feel good. It touches on how it feels for a child to see ream after ream of pages marked up with red and Fs despite how hard they try. It reminds children of how beautiful their skin and hair are, no matter what the media might tell them. Like Milo Imagines the World, this is a book for now and forever.
1. Have students make a list or drawings about ways that they matter. This could be about special skills they know, ways they help in their home & community, just everything they love about themselves, and they see as important.
2. Tami Charles wrote this book with her son in mind. Have students write a letter to Tami Charles. Tell her what you thought about Because You Matter. Then, have them share a few details about themselves and compose a question they would like to ask the author.
3. In the text, a boy enters a new classroom, and someone makes fun of his name. Have your student write their name as large as possible on a single sheet of paper and decorate it to reflect their feelings and interests. Celebrate everyone’s names.