Kicking Down the Door, Part 2

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music…

There’s a story I like about a kid riding the subway to visit his mother who’s in prison. It’s a children’s picture book called Milo Imagines the World, written by Matt de la Peña (illustrated by Christian Robinson).

That’s right. It’s a children’s picture book.

Who told de la Peña that he could write a picture book about a kid going to visit his mother in prison? Yes, I know picture books can be sophisticated and layered and a bit dark. But still…

It’s brilliant storytelling. During the subway ride, Milo (the boy) draws pictures of the people he sees and imagines what their lives are like. For example, he sees a smartly dressed boy and imagines he lives a fancy life, but his perceptions are shaken when he sees this boy at the prison, also visiting his mom. Milo realizes first impressions may not be so accurate.

This is what de la Peña does. He writes books about kids who aren’t typically represented in children’s literature. At a conference, a teacher told him her school doesn’t carry his books, good as they are, because their students aren’t like his characters, and de la Peña asked how many wizards attend their school.

Another of de la Peña’s picture books, Last Stop on Market Street (a Newbery medal winner, also illustrated by Robinson), is about a kid riding the bus with his grandmother to help her work in a soup kitchen in a rough part of town, and the kid learns to see beauty in even the most scarred of environments.

De la Peña’s picture book Love, more tone poem than story (illustrated by Loren Long), has a page spread where we see a kid hiding under the piano—the dad looking disheveled, the mom crying, a glass of liquor in sight. The publisher wanted to cut this image, but de la Peña insisted it stay.

De la Peña also writes YA novels, like Ball Don’t Lie, about a foster kid walking the mean streets of LA. Here he is…

I almost forgot to tell you about Sticky… How he keeps his raisin-brown hair cropped close. Faded up on the sides with some fancy-ass clippers he snatched from Macy’s. How he’s long and thin like somebody’s stick figure sketch, scissored off lined paper and Scotch-taped to a basketball court.

The words in de la Peña’s books vibrate with the personality of the people we’re meeting.

Matt used to teach at Gotham and was good enough to be a guest at our last Children’s Book Conference. And, man, he’s a champion to kids everywhere, many of them seeing themselves in a book for the first time.  

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

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