‘What begins as a slow, distant glow/ grows and grows/ into a tired train that clatters down the tracks.’ Milo and his big sister board the train and their journey begins. Milo, small, bespectacled, feet dangling in mid-air, is a ‘shook-up soda’, as he usually is on these monthly Sunday train rides and his sister is the same, ‘Excitement stacked on top of worry/ on top of confusion/ on top of love.’ To stay calm, Milo observes his fellow passengers, imagining their lives and drawing scenes in his sketchbook. The whiskered man next to him he depicts going home to a flat empty but for ‘mewling cats and burrowing rats’, sipping ‘tepid soup’ on his own. When a young boy in spotless white Nikes gets on with his father, Milo imagines him in a castle with a butler and maids to serve him lunch. He wonders what people think about him – can they see him reciting his volcano poem, or listening as his mum reads him bedtime stories over the phone? When they reach their stop, Milo is surprised to see the boy in the Nikes getting off too; they’re both going to the same place. As they go through the metal detector at the women’s prison, Milo realises you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face and reimagines the pictures he’s drawn, giving the people happier lives. Milo, and readers with him, have seen and learned so much.
Milo’s fellow passengers are as rich a mix as you’d expect to find on a New York subway and, at the book’s end, everyone will want to go back, look at them again and imagine for themselves the lives they could be living. Milo’s story too will open up another world of wonder and understanding and the experiences of a child with a parent in prison are depicted with huge skill and insight. Matt de la Pena’s text is concise but lyrical and Christian Robinson’s illustrations detailed, immediate but full of space for readers to fill in. An exceptional picture book.