Last Stop on Market Street

author: Matt de la Peña 
illustrator: Christian Robinson 
Putnam, 2015 
all grades

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.

—Patricia Enciso
(published 1/26/16)

This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared in Latin@s in Kid Lit ( We thank Latin@s in Kid Lit for permission.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir

author: Margarita Engle
illustrator: Edel Rodriguez 
Atheneum, 2015 
grades 5-up 
Cuban American

Margarita Engle’s parents met in 1947, when her father, an artist from the US, visited the Museo Romántico in Trinidad de Cuba, her mother’s hometown; “it was love at first sight.” Although they didn’t speak each other’s language, he proposed marriage, and she said yes.

Margarita grew up between two languages and two cultures. In this memoir in free verse, she describes her childhood trips to Cuba, her father’s Jewish family, and her life in the United States where—as “a misfit bookworm” and half-Cuban during the Cold War—she never fit in with her peers in Southern California. She describes the irony of a mother cut off from her family by the revolution, also hounded by US government agents, and shunned by neighbors who suspect they are Communist spies. As a child, she doesn’t understand, “Why are Cubans suddenly spoken of / as enemies? / Not so long ago, Mami’s island / was only known for music / and sugar.”

Enchanted Air offers a nuanced perspective on the conflict between the United States and Cuba that never loses sight of the personal, the perspective of a young girl seeking her voice and an understanding of who she is. Bullies terrify her; so does riding her first horse in Mexico, even though she has pestered her parents for years to let her ride a horse. When she skips grades in school because of her academic ability, she gets in over her head with a fast crowd of outcasts—the only classmates to accept her: “After I race away from that scary / first kiss, I have no hope for love, / or even like.” She is eleven at the time; the boy is 16.  Her older friends drop out of school one by one—pregnant, drug addicted, on public assistance.

Edel Rodriguez’s beautiful cover art evokes the early work of Pablo Picasso, a disembodied face fused with a bird in flight—an image of the magic within imagination. Air, wings, and flight figure prominently in many of the poems. When Margarita’s grandmother has to return to Cuba, she wishes she had “paper wings” to join her; the years before the revolution are dangerous times, with “vultures, too, circling / like a wheel / of darkly winged / questions.”

Young Margarita finds her place as a poet, a traveler of the world, and a keen observer of history, culture and her society’s many paradoxes. How does this child of a Cuban mother end up with a well-used passport, a “disturbing document / that specifically states / it cannot be used for travel / to Cuba”? As in her many historical and biographical works, Engle’s poetry in this memoir resonates with language that is beautiful, fresh, and emotionally true. The back matter, while not comprehensive, offers valuable context for the poems. The final page excerpts José Martí’s Versos Sencillos in Spanish and English, showing Engle as a literary heir of this great Cuban poet.

Enchanted Air has won a number of accolades, including the 2016 Pura Belpré Award, the 2016 Walter Dean Myers Honor Award, and it was a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. All of these are well deserved and Enchanted Air is highly recommended for both middle grade and young adult readers.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 1/20/16)

This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared in The Pirate Tree ( We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.

Zulema and the Witch Owl / Zulema y la Bruja Lechuza

author: Xavier Garza 
translator: Carolina Villarroel 
illustrator: Xavier Garza 
Piñata Publications, Arte Público Press, 2009 
grades 1-3
Mexican, Mexican American

All societies have ways of socializing and disciplining their children; in many cultures, parents and grandparents teach moral lessons with monster stories that scare children into behaving. The Mexican version is, “Portate bien o te lleva el Cucuy”—“Behave yourself or the Cucuy will steal you away.” Mexican and Mexican American kids living in the border towns love Cucuy stories, which are among the scariest.

Here, nine-year-old Zulema is a terror, “the meanest little girl in the whole wide world.” She is so mean that every kid in school is afraid of her. She is so mean that puppies and kittens run from her. She is so mean that she throws rocks at people who don’t buy her Girl Scout cookies. She is so mean that she carries around a slingshot and her little dolly is a luchador rudo. She is so mean that—OK, you get the picture.

Pues, Zulema’s mother has had it with this kid, to the point where she’s forced to call in the big guns—90-year-old Grandma Sabina is coming to live with them. Grandma is far from a pushover, and Zulema’s nasty, beyond disrespectful attitude doesn’t faze her. But when Zulema mocks Grandma’s appearance and scoffs at her warning about the Witch Owl’s coming to take away children who don’t mind their elders—that’s the last straw. It’s time to take action, the kind of totally scary action that will force Zulema to mend her ways. Instantly.

Villarroel’s Spanish is more than a translation; it flows with the same scary storytelling rhythm as the English. “Si no cambias de actitud,” Grandma warns, “la Bruja Lechuza vendrá a visitarte antes de lo que imaginas.”

Garza’s darkened palette of thickly brushed acrylic-on-paper art presents anime-like characters with huge eyes and over-the-top expressions that complement his eerie story. Full bleeds show three frightened children running from the Witch Owl; the terrified Zulema—as the gigantic Bruja Lechuza envelops her—helplessly screaming for help with no one to rescue her; and finally, the suddenly reformed little girl—holding a large white feather—recognizing who Grandma really is. Garza also incorporates little hints throughout—such as Grandma’s eyes, her owl-headed cane, and her wing-shaped rebozo—and my favorites: the dual-language dividers, in which Grandma actually transforms from image to image.

Between Garza’s storytelling and art, and Villarroel’s excellent translation, this is as close as youngsters—both hablantes and English readers—will get to being inside a story. Zulema and the Witch Owl / Zulema y la Bruja Lechuza is creepy and predictable—no subtlety here—and young readers will want to return to and share it over and over. It’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/15/16)

Mi Familia Calaca / My Skeleton Family

author: Cynthia Weill 
artist: Jesús Canseco Zárate
Cinco Puntos Press, 2013 

Except for what’s visually obvious, the close-knit familia Calaca is your typical extended family next door. Here, big sister Anita introduces her bratty brother, Miguel (“Él es muy travieso”), her cute baby brother, Juanito (“¡Él es tan lindo!”); her “hermosa mamá” and “guapo papá”; her abuelitos, who are “los mejores,” her bisabuela, who “tells wonderful stories,” and, of course, her pets (“son mis mejores amigos”).

All of traditional Oaxacan artist Canseco Zárate’s papier-máché (cartonería) skeleton family members, posed singly and in groups and photographed against bright pastel-colored backgrounds, have that wide, friendly smile that only skeletons can have. As well, his ‘50s and ‘60s fashion details perfectly frame what they have left for bodies. June Cleaver-like mom, in full skull makeup and high heels, sports a polka dot-print shirtwaist and a double strand of pearls. Office worker dad, in horn-rimmed eyeglasses, wears pencils in the breast pocket of his button-down shirt. Sister Anita is stylish in a flower-print dress and black patent leather Mary Janes. Abuelo wears a felt hat to keep his skull warm. Abuela’s fashionably blue eyeglasses frame her mascara-tipped eyeholes. Freckled Miguel’s bony knees stick out of his blue shorts. Baby Juanito, in a stroller, wears a cute blue onesie and has a neat little topknot on his skull. Gray-haired bisabuela, whose dress is accented with a lace collar, uses a walker. And the pets, of course, are fashionably decked out as well.

Each double-page spread, connected by the particular background color, mostly features a waving family member or hand-holding group on one side and English-over-Spanish text on the other; and Weil’s spare, whimsical text both balances and frames Canseco Zárate’s lively artwork. Mi Familia Calaca / My Skeleton Family is great fun for the youngest children—both hablantes and English speakers—and can lend itself to a plethora of art projects during celebrations of El Día de los Muertos, and any other time as well. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/12/16)

Remembering Day / El Día de los Muertos

author: Pat Mora
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura
illustrator: Robert Casilla
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2015
grades 2-up 
Aztec, Mexican

Death, to the ancient Aztec people, was not to be feared. Rather, death was just a part of life, as was the afterlife. A long and beautiful Aztec story describes the perilous four-year journey of the non-living through nine afterworlds—determined by the person’s life and manner of death—before finally reaching the land of the dead. Warriors and those who had been sacrificed, for instance, went to the dwelling place of the sun. Women who had died giving birth were considered warriors as well, and went to the region of the women. Children went to the land of the wet-nurse tree, where they suckled and waited to be reborn. Festivals commemorating the dead were held in different months of the Aztec calendar.[1]

Today, El Día de los Muertos continues to be celebrated in various ways, in Mexican and Central American communities, and in southwestern parts of the US. The celebrations include parades, music, papier-máché skeletons, and candy; and culminate with picnics at the cleaned and decorated gravesites. At home, there are beautiful ofrendas, with photos and flowers, and food items that had been savored by the deceased. All this is not only to remember a particular family’s and community’s dead, but also to entice them back for a visit.[2]

In addition, as my friend and colleague Judy Zalazar Drummond writes, it’s a “healthy alternative to Halloween with its spooks and goblins. The celebration is from Mexico, but reflects death rituals in many other cultures. It shows a healthy worldview where death is not seen as hideous and horrible and to be feared. Instead, it is real and involves real people and their real lives. Day of the Dead also provides a powerful resource to help young people cope with the violence and death in their families and communities. It provides a format for grieving and remembering loved ones that speaks to the continuity and cyclical nature of life.”[3]

In The Remembering Day / El Día de los Muertos, Mora imagines how “this custom of creating a remembering day might have started in the distant past, in a rural village; when indigenous languages and not Spanish or English, were spoken on this hemisphere…” Here, Mamá Alma and her young granddaughter, Bella, do everything together: they play and cook, and they work in the garden growing vegetables and flowers. As the child matures, Mamá Alma teaches her how to weave on the loom, how to cure a sick bird and which herbs to use in healing. The two share memories; towards the end of her life, Mamá Alma tells her granddaughter that “our bodies do not always live forever,” and encourages her to plan an annual “remembering day.” “Teach others,” she says, “that when we think about the people we love, they are always with us, even though we can’t see them.” After her beloved Mamá Alma has passed on, Bella brings her grandmother’s wishes to the community and, a year later, the first “Remembering Day” occurs.

Baeza Ventura’s rhythmic, idiomatic Spanish translation closely follows the English. The night that Mamá Alma dies, for instance, “Bella woke and saw a tiny light dart through their reed door into the night” becomes, “Esa noche, Bella despertó y vio una pequeña luz que rápidamente escapaba por la puerta de caña hacia la noche.” 

Casilla’s realistic art, rendered in watercolors and pastels on a bejeweled palette of mostly warm colors, are gorgeous. His models appear to be Zapotec and the Mexican countryside, with its rolling hills, trees, cacti and flowers, appears to be Oaxaca, which is where the story is based. But most of all, I love the details. Here is grandma, imparting knowledge and wisdom to her adoring grandchild. Here’s a hummingbird in several illustrations, including one cradled in Mamá Alma’s hand, allowing Bella to gingerly touch it. Here are the marigolds, which, today as yesterday, are used to lure the dead home. And here are children, sleeping in a hammock, while Bella awakes, serenely accepting her Mamá Alma’s journey.

The Remembering Day / El Día de los Muertos has the feel of a contemporary story about a warm, loving relationship between a Zapotec child and her grandmother, part of a Oaxacan farm family living in a village of small houses with thatched roofs, veggie and flower gardens, and children sleeping in hammocks. But it doesn’t have the feel—nor is it informative of—El Día de los Muertos, the holiday that celebrates the dead and entices them back to visit.

There’s always danger in a “contemporary reimagining” of an origin tale that leaves out the important parts. Here, for instance, the word “died” is mentioned only once, and “muertos,” twice. And “Remembering Day” is not translated as “El Día de los Muertos,” which is much more than a day for remembering one’s own ancestors. It’s a large, symbolic, community holiday, steeped in both Indigenous, and later, merged European (Catholic) traditions that welcomes the change of the seasons; and welcomes and honors visits from the community’s dead.

Instead of Mora’s crafting this fictionalized origin of an important death ritual, I’d rather have seen a story of how this particular girl came to understand this particular ritual. As a contemporary story about a grandmother’s aging and transition in a Zapotec family and community, The Remembering Day / El Día de los Muertos would have been highly recommended. But, despite the title in Spanish and this family’s “remembering day” tradition, it’s not about the “first” Día de los Muertos, and cannot be recommended as such.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/11/16)

(Great thanks to Judy Zalazar Drummond, and I’d like to acknowledge the life and work of my multitalented colleague, Bobbie Salinas, whom I imagine is joyfully carousing with her friends in the Land of the Dead.)

[1] This information is from Bobbi Salinas’s beautiful book, Indo-Hispanic Folk Art Traditions II: The Day of the Dead and other year-round activities (Piñata Publications, 1988). It’s out of print, but worth a search.

[2] There are many good children’s books available, specifically about or complementing El Día de los Muertos. Some of them are: Days of the Dead by Kathryn Lasky (Hyperion, 1994), The Festival of Bones / El Festival de las Calaveras (The Little Bitty Book for the Day of the Dead) by Luis San Vicente (Cinco Puntos, 2002), Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams, 2015), Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book by Yuyi Morales (Roaring Brook, 2008), Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuyi Morales (Chronicle, 2003), Light Foot / Pies ligeros by Natalia and Francisco Toledo (Groundwood, 2007), Mi Familia Calaca / My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weil (Cinco Puntos, 2013), My Aunt Otila’s Spirits / Los Espíritus de mi Tía Otilia by Richard García (Children’s  Book Press / Lee & Low, 1986), and Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead by George Ancona (Lothrop, 1997).

[3] From Día de los Muertos: Lesson Plans, written and compiled by Judy Zalazar Drummond, professor, and Teacher Education students at the University of San Francisco (2005).

Fighting Chance

author: Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press (2015) 
grades  9-up 
Mexican American

California journalist Claudia Meléndez Salinas’s A Fighting Chance, published in fall 2015 by the Piñata Books imprint of Arte Público Press, is a fine example of what small presses offer. This book breaks the rules of conventional young adult literature and in doing so gives teen readers a broader social and cultural perspective.

While focusing on her protagonist Miguel Ángel, a 17-year-old boxer from Salinas, California—the town best known for its connection to the twentieth-century author John Steinbeck—Meléndez Salinas also tells a story of class relations and a community fighting for dignity and survival. Miguel Ángel is the oldest of five siblings. His mother works hard in the fields, but she cannot support her family by herself, so he has to work at a supermarket full-time while attending school and working out at the local community center, the Packing Shed. Coach is trying hard to keep the Packing Shed open in the face of budget cuts because he knows it’s the only alternative keeping teens from gang life.

And Miguel Ángel, Coach’s shining star, is no saint. At a match in a neighboring well-to-do community, he fell in love with wealthy Britney, they had unprotected sex, and now she’s pregnant. To see her, he has to borrow his best friend Beto’s truck, but Beto, a gang member, now wants something in return.

By shifting points of view from Miguel Ángel to Britney to Coach and a local politician torn between her career and doing what’s right, Meléndez Salinas shows teen readers that their lives don’t exist in a vacuum. The Mexican-American residents of Salinas struggle against stereotypes of their community as violent and undeserving of help. Through Miguel Ángel and his family and Coach’s sacrifices, we see a more nuanced picture—young people resisting gangs, parents who want the best for their children, children who contribute with pride to their family’s survival. For instance, Miguel Ángel, never a strong student, knows that working full-time while struggling to finish high school will allow his more academically gifted younger sisters to concentrate on their studies and attend college.
A Fighting Chance is not a perfect book. While the Mexican-American characters reflect the diversity of individuals and families, the white characters do not. Britney’s father in particular is a complete villain, taunting, insulting, and wreaking physical violence on his two daughters’ Mexican-American boyfriends whom he sees as “beneath them.” In the end, he abuses his daughter as well.

Through the omniscient narrator, readers are able to see the broader social forces working for and against the characters. A Fighting Chance frequently refers to Steinbeck’s classic novels, and it hearkens back to that tradition—big stories told through the experiences of ordinary people, stories that motivated their readers to think about their lives and society in general and to fight for real change. Today, we need more of these stories. A Fighting Chance is recommended.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 1/7/16)

This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared in The Pirate Tree ( We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.