‘Milton’s Suitcase Adventure’: New children’s book is a collaboration of a friendship born in La Jolla

"Milton's Suitcase Adventure" was written by Diane Distefano and illustrated by Manny Pantoja.
“Milton’s Suitcase Adventure” was written by Diane Distefano and illustrated by Manny Pantoja, who met while working together at UC San Diego in La Jolla.
(Provided by Diane Distefano)

Keeping a friendship going after one moves away might prove difficult for some, but a couple of former co-workers at UC San Diego in La Jolla have maintained a connection through creativity.

“Milton’s Suitcase Adventure,” a children’s book written by Diane Distefano and illustrated by Manny Pantoja, is about a dog “who likes to sleep a lot, and his penchant for sleeping gets him into an adventure he hadn’t expected,” Distefano said. He falls asleep in a suitcase and wakes up in Paris.

Though that is initially “jarring and upsetting,” Milton learns through “resilience and being flexible and trying new things that it’s OK,” Distefano said. “He gets so confident in that new city [and] gets himself into a predicament near the end and is able to find his way out with the tools he’s learned.”

The book, published May 16, is meant to be “fun and instructive,” Distefano said.

The main character is based on Distefano’s real-life Milton, a 15-year-old mix who she said is “a wonderful dog” who loves to walk at La Jolla Shores.

Pantoja was inspired to draw Milton surfing in the book.

“I want children to really enjoy this adventure with Milton,” Distefano said. “A very young child would get the joy out of the story and the silliness of it and the illustrations … whereas an older child will kind of get some of those subtle, teachable moments, [like] it’s OK to try new things.”

Distefano and Pantoja met at UCSD. Distefano works in the campus communications and marketing department and Pantoja worked as a marketing intern while completing his visual arts degree at the university.

“Diane and I worked together,” he said, “and we clicked.”

The two became good friends, Distefano said, and remain connected even though Pantoja lives in Fresno, Los Angeles and Europe, working remotely as a senior graphic designer.

The duo has always wanted to create a book together, Distefano said.

A book about travel seemed right to both of them during the COVID-19 pandemic, as travel was difficult.

“We’re able through our character to escape out into the world,” Distefano said. “It was a cathartic, creative experience that allowed us to be social at a time when you couldn’t be.”

This is Distefano’s first book, though she has always done creative writing at home and writes professionally for the university.

“I never tried my hand at something like this,” she said. “It was really satisfying.”

Pantoja has illustrated previous children’s books, though the process for “Milton’s Suitcase Adventure,” which took three years to complete, differed from his other experiences. He and Distefano often connected on Zoom to discuss the story and other topics.

“It definitely was more collaborative than other clients,” Pantoja said, “not only because Diane is a friend but we worked together in La Jolla.”

“Milton’s Suitcase Adventure” is available at For more information, visit