I love Zetta Elliott’s 2016 picture book Milo’s Museum. This book is clever, original, relatable, politically relevant, and sweet; in other words, everything I could want in a children’s book and a few things I need.
Purple Wong’s detailed and deeply meaningful illustrations complement Elliott’s story brilliantly. Wong adds multiple layers of significance by helping the reader see what the title character, Milo, experiences.
The story begins with a class trip to an art museum. Wong illustrates a diverse cast of characters waiting to get into the museum: a little boy with a hearing aid holds the hand of a woman wearing a hijab, racially and ethnically diverse students and adults talk among themselves, and Milo, a brown-skinned girl, holds her grandfather’s hand. He is chaperoning the trip because her parents are at work, which subtly introduces the importance of extended family.
After the formal tour of the museum ends, the children are allowed to explore the museum on their own. Milo and her grandfather are depicted standing together. He looks at a painting reminiscent of van Gogh, she looks into a mirror with a concerned expression on her face. The text reads: “She stopped in front of a giant mirror and looked at her reflection. Milo could see her classmates admiring the works of art. She liked most of the art, too, but something didn’t feel right.”
Milo asks her grandfather what museums are for and he thoughtfully responds: “‘… museums hold all the objects that people feel are valuable and important…’.” In the corresponding image, Milo’s grandfather kneels to be at eye level with his granddaughter, visually representing his support and respect for her inquiry. Their conversation takes place in front of a roped-off painting of a finely dressed white woman and a young black boy. Wong helps the reader understand Milo’s apprehension by revealing what Milo sees and what she doesn’t. The text and images, taken together, encourage critical reflection on relationships between white- and brown-skinned people, younger and older people, what we value, and who that we represents.
At home, Marlo sits on her front steps watching neighbors walk by, white and brown children play together, a woman with a walking stick carries a grocery bag, and a car playing rap drives by as Milo bobs her head to the beat. The text reads: “So many faces, sounds, and stories made up her world – but none of it was in the museum.”
In the next image Milo’s aunt, Vashti, wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, joins her on the stoop and asks why she looks sad. Milo responds: “‘We aren’t in the museum’.” Her aunt explains that curators choose what goes into museums.
Milo wants to know why “WE” don’t get a say. The use of “we” instead of “I” demonstrates that Milo sees the exclusion as affecting more than just her. This is about her community being excluded from representation. She’s thinking in terms of group membership and belonging beyond her individual identity.
Vashti supports her niece but does not stoop to the indignity of protecting her from painful realities (a.k.a. the social world). She gives Milo suggestions to empower her to act: Milo can write to the curator or create her own museum. Milo chooses the latter.
The next day Milo puts together her own carefully curated collection of valuable artifacts, including baby booties handmade by her great great-grandmother, a medal her great great-grandpa Jack earned in WWI, a picture taken at a community block party, and a statue of Egyptian goddess Isis. Her museum values family and community.
Neighbors, including two of her classmates, have gathered as Milo walked her family members through her museum. Her classmates are excited to have a museum in their neighborhood and want to participate. The wise Milo asks them to contribute something to the museum so it can represent the whole community.
One of my favorite aspects of the text is that adults do not attempt to shield Milo from the world, they empower her to change it, and she does.
I love that Milo is such a smart, generous, race-conscious, community-oriented girl who recognizes that it is not acceptable to have a museum full of art that fails to celebrate human diversity as a social value. The fact that this realization comes from a child encourages children to turn a critical eye to the world and question dominant values.
This book makes many significant social issues accessible to young children: race, ability, religious diversity, issues of power and cultural production, self-advocacy, and youth activism. If you are interested in books that prompt thought and action, this is a must read. I would recommend it for a 5+ age group because the themes are too challenging for a younger audience to effectively grasp. However, I read it to my three-year-old and he loves the idea of making a museum of things important to you. Like all great children’s books it can be read and re-read and the meanings made of the material will get thicker with time.