Christian Robinson is known for the whimsical art he creates for children’s books, illustrations that radiate the joy of childhood.
But Robinson’s own childhood was more complicated. It’s a history he drew on for his new picture book with Matt de la Peña, “Milo Imagines the World.” Like Robinson, Milo has an incarcerated parent. And like Robinson, Milo finds inspiration and beauty in his own imagination.
“Growing up, my mother was in prison for most of my childhood,” Robinson told TODAY. “So yeah, Milo's story is my story.”
When Robinson was 5 months old, his father left him and his older brother at their grandmother’s one-bedroom Los Angeles apartment in the middle of the night. His grandmother Mary Lee, whom he calls Nana, said it was a shock to open her door and see him at 4 a.m.
“It was raining, pouring rain. And Christian was dressed in a diaper and his brother had a pair of shorts and a T-shirt,” Lee told TODAY.
Robinson and his brother, then 4, moved in with his Nana, two cousins and aunt. They only occasionally visited his mother, who struggled with addiction and mental health problems.
“We had limited space, limited means,” said Robinson, now 34. “But I like to say that where I found space was in creativity. Was in making pictures. Was in being able to imagine the kind of world that I wanted to see.”
That imagination started to bloom when Robinson was 4 years old and his great-grandmother, Lee's mother, gave him a pencil and a grocery list.
“He drew little stick people of a mother, a father and this little — this tiny, tiny figure that was supposed have been a child,” Lee said. “It was amazing. It was amazing. It gave me cold chills.”
Robinson never stopped drawing. If he saw a movie or TV show, he would run to recreate it and make it his own.
"I liked to just sort of get lost in this world that I was creating," he recalled. "Like, I might not live in a very big house, but I can draw myself my dream mansion with all my rooms and swimming pools and pets that I wanted."
During the pandemic, Robinson, now in Sacramento, saw kids struggling with quarantine and remote learning and reflected on what got him through his own tough times — creativity. He started an Instagram series for kids, "Making Space," with creative exercises to help them express their feelings.
"Milo Imagines the World" centers on a boy who creates stories about people around him on his way to visit his mother in prison. Robinson remembers his own visits as rare and emotional.
"I adored her. I admired her," he said. "It was very painful, every time she would, you know, fall into trouble and be taken away. And it always felt like a punishment. When someone you love is serving time, it feels like you're also serving time. You're also being punished."
He never saw his own story reflected in books growing up, and it wasn't until he went to school that he realized his experience was unusual. He said he internalized a sense of shame.
He calls illustrating Milo "a healing experience."
"I want to let young people know that they have a certain amount of power, that they can create the life they want to see," he said. "And it begins with what's in your head. What do you think about your life, about yourself?"
His publisher, Penguin Random House, is on track to donate 2,500 copies of the book to The unPrison Project's UP with Books program, a literacy campaign for children with mothers in prison.
Robinson's pairing with de la Peña began with "Last Stop on Market Street," which won the Newbery medal for de la Peña and a Caldecott Honor for Robinson. With "Milo Imagines the World," they show the ways we judge others without knowing their stories.
"I think it's an incredible opportunity for empathy, to see somebody who might be sitting next to you in class who has that experience, and you'll understand their reality better," de la Peña told TODAY. "So I'm hoping that, more and more, books like 'Milo Imagines the World' are for all audiences, not just underprivileged audiences."
Robinson doesn't know where his mother is now. His family has not heard from her since the pandemic began. Last they knew, she was living on the streets of Los Angeles' Skid Row.
He hopes that sharing his experience with children who may be going through something similar helps them know their stories matter.
"I think that's what I want young people to know — that as crazy, as misfit, as unconventional, as strange as your story may feel, your life, your experience, it isn't," he said. "It's beautiful, you know?"
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