illustrator: Christian Robinson
Last Stop on Market Street is a stunning contribution to the legacy and future of book art and storytelling for children; no wonder, then, that it has won a Newbery Award, Caldecott Honor, and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. With distinctive, poetic text by Matt de la Peña and evocative illustrations by Christian Robinson, Last Stop on Market Street reveals the creative potential of a powerful cross-cultural author-illustrator partnership. In words and pictures, it embraces substantive diversity in children’s literature, diversity that not only helps us see ourselves and one another, but that also asks that we make our world anew.
On a Sunday after church, CJ and his Nana begin their weekly journey across town on a public bus, eventually disembarking at the last stop on Market Street, where they walk down a broken-down street with broken-down buildings until they reach their destination: a soup kitchen. Along the way, they encounter an array of people, including the bus driver, a blind man, a woman holding a jar of butterflies, teens plugged in to their iPods, and a guitar player.
Sitting inside the bus, watching as others travel by car, bicycle, and skateboard, CJ questions the differences he notices between his own life and the lives of others. As she answers him, Nana demonstrates thoughtfulness and regard for variation in the natural world and in our flawed but beautiful human communities.
Last Stop on Market Street follows a child’s discoveries as he ventures beyond home. A traditional European storyline would feature a child’s adventures into inviting spaces full of wonder and delight, riches at the ready. Here, though, CJ and Nana do not journey through a readymade world; rather, they make the world as they go along. For CJ, part of that making is reckoning with his own desire for belonging in a world marked by disparities.
Whereas many reviewers see Nana’s wisdom as what determines the book’s value, I want to focus on CJ’s questions. Specifically, I want to consider how these questions make Last Stop on Market Street deserving of the year’s most prestigious awards as well as how they might be reoriented for adults reviewers to enable more generative thinking about book evaluations when diversity matters.
Across the book, CJ asks his grandmother six questions:
• “How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?”
• “Nana, how come we don’t got a car?”
• “How come we always gotta go here after church?”
• “How come that man can’t see?”
• (Implicitly asking for an iPod): “Sure wish I had one of those.”
• “How come it’s always so dirty over here?”
On the face of it, CJ is asking for what kids (and adults) often desire: to be unconstrained and worry-free, to have easy access to pleasure and fun. Stories can create this kind of world for children; and many adults think this is what stories for young readers should do. Instead, Last Stop on Market Street honors the realities that exist beyond the readymade worlds of comfort and privilege. CJ doesn’t want to imagine himself far away from what he sees, but he does want to know why the world is as it is and where he belongs in it. Gaps in resources and opportunities are as present in CJ’s reality as the lowering and lifting of the bus making its stops. He is right to ask questions, and his Nana never undermines the legitimacy of his questions. Rather, she answers them by modeling attentiveness, wonder, and reverence for the lovely particularity of their human encounters on a rainy Sunday.
Robinson’s illustrations show a distinctive entry point, midpoint and eventual endpoint for each of CJ and his Nana’s interactions. Eyes meet, hands touch, bodies tilt forward, lean over, straighten up, respond. The rhythm of people making room for one another and attending to one another animates every scene. Nana creates opportunities for CJ to notice, to attend thoughtfully to his world. While CJ’s questions highlight important material differences between people, Nana directs his attention to the unique, often momentary, connections that are possible when we engage with others. Without undermining the reality of material disparities, these connections show that all people have the potential to draw beauty from ordinary experience. And they show that beauty is in the making, in the shared work of creating these connections, as when Nana, CJ, and the blind man all close their eyes to listen to the guitar player’s song.
Throughout the book, with his Nana’s guidance, CJ becomes immersed in making the world around him through actual and metaphorical interactions.
Usually, when considering how diversity is represented in children’s literature, reviewers ask some variation of the following two questions:
• How accurate are representations of language, culture, setting, and relationships?
• Are characters fully realized and shown to have agency?
While these questions highlight character strengths and authorial insight, they miss the significant ways an author places characters in an unequal world, which is where all children live.
Last Stop on Market Street offers us some clues about the new questions we could be asking. In an effort to encourage reviewers to look beyond the standard concerns when reading and evaluating diverse representations in children’s literature, I have translated CJ’s questions into the following “adult” questions:
• How is difference constructed, and what does it mean for a character’s belonging in an unequal world?
• How is material wealth acknowledged or taken for granted in a story, especially at a time of extreme poverty for fully a third of the children living in the US?
• How are characters’ lives and perspectives interrelated and interdependent? How are these interconnections shown in text and image?
• How and by whom are perceptions of difference transformed, and with what implications for future relations?
• How are disparities in the funding and support of community infrastructures acknowledged? Are inequities seen to have a material effect on children’s opportunities to explore and become their fullest selves?
These questions beckon from beneath CJ’s apparently simple queries. Like Nana, Last Stop on Market Street underscores their relevance with equal parts gentleness and insistence. We should pay attention to the questions, let them take root in us. We should also pay attention to the world- making that unfolds in their wake, both in the book, as CJ and Nana partner in treasuring the particularity of each encounter, and in the future we are beginning to envision for children’s literature.
Last Stop on Market Street is an award-winning book, not only because the language is lyrical and the illustrations are alive with rhythm and warmth, but also because it is a groundbreaking story. It is a story where it matters that CJ is a Black child spending Sunday with his grandmother. It is a story where it matters still more that CJ and his Nana ask each other hard questions and make space for complex answers. It is a story where it matters that we, too, might learn to make our world as we go along.
Thank you, Matt, Christian, and the Newbery Committee for taking up the imaginative work of making the world of children’s literature what it can be. As for the rest of us who care about children and the worlds they grow up in, let’s heed Nana’s invitation at the end of Last Stop on Market Street: “Now, come on.” There are more worlds to make, more encounters to be had as we discover all the ways that diversity is fundamental to human experience.
So, friends? Come on. Our bus is here.
This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared in Latin@s in Kid Lit (latinosinkidlit.com). We thank Latin@s in Kid Lit for permission.