More than a review, what follows are my thoughts on a picture book winning the Newbery, my experience reading Last Stop on Market Street to my students, and how this changed and shaped my understanding of and experience with this book.
A week ago, Last Stop on Market Street, a picture book by YA author Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson, won the Newbery award. Traditionally, this award is given to novels, although this is not specified in the criteria, which states that the award be given to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Last Stop on Market Street also, very deservedly, won a Caldecott honor, an award given to the "most distinguished picture book for children." I received a review copy of this book when it came out and, as sadly sometimes happens with great books, I read it but didn't get around to reviewing it. When I heard that Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery, I did a double take, rereading the announcement on the American Library Association's website. I was surprised and a little angry, thinking about the amazing novels that had come out in 2015, and began writing, in my head, a heated response to the librarians on the committee that made this out-of-the-box choice. Then, I decided to take the book to school and read it to as many kids as possible over the course of the week and my opinion changed, almost immediately.
Last Stop on Market Street tells the story of CJ and Nana as they leave church and head, by bus, to a soup kitchen where they volunteer every Sunday. Over the course of the trip, CJ asks Nana all kinds of questions, the way kids do. He wants to know why they don't have a car, why he can't have an iPod, why can't the man with the cane and dog see, why it's so dirty in the neighborhood near the soup kitchen? Nana answers CJ's questions, not always directly, but with wisdom, creativity and sensitivity. And, although he didn't want to go there at first, CJ finds he is happy to be at the soup kitchen with Nana once they arrive. As de la Peña writes in an essay titled, "How We Talk (Or Don't Talk) About Diversity When We Read with Our Kids," his book is, among other things, about, "seeing the beautiful in the world and the power of service," something that is rarely touched upon in picture books.
The student body at the school where I am the librarian is almost 90% Hispanic, with African Americans, Asians and whites making up the other 10%. Almost 90% of the student body at my school qualifies for free lunch and many of them live in a home with multiple families, are foster children or do not live with both parents. The majority of my students speak English as a second language and struggle to read at grade level. Last Stop on Market Street is a book that, unlike most, shows my students people of all colors (and their colors) as well as people who share their socioeconomic status. In his essay, de la Peña says that he strives to "write books about diverse characters, but now I try to place them in stories that have nothing to do with diversity, not overtly anyway," and this is definitely true here. As I read this book over and over to my first through fifth graders, I came to share the belief of the ALA that Last Stop on Market Street is indeed worthy of the Newbery Medal, in large part because it is accessible for my students, many of whom cannot read Newbery winners because the reading level is too high for them, but also because it is intimately, immediately relatable. Also, it is very cool to be able to tell my students that, not only did Matt de la Peña, who is half Mexican and half white, grow up in National City, which is in San Diego county, where our school is, but that Matt is also the first Latino author to win the Newbery Medal. And then I get to give a shout-out to another San Diego county writer and winner of the Newbery Honor medal this year for her book Echo, Pam Muñoz Ryan, who is also half Mexican.
Besides being accessible because of the reading level, I value Last Stop on Market Street because reading it has opened doors to so many amazing conversations with my students. With the younger students, I didn't talk about the diversity of the characters, but we did talk about volunteering time and what a soup kitchen is. We talked about who has ridden the bus and who has seen a street performer. With my older students, we were able to have a discussion about diversity in the books they read, why there isn't a Latina Junie B. Jones and how maybe some of them will grow up to write kid's books with diverse characters. We even touched on socioeconomic diversity, which I also am grateful to be able to talk about when I read Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo's amazing book Yard Sale to students. Yard Sale is about a family who, after losing their house, is having a yard sale before moving into a small apartment. Having an opening to talk about diversity in kid's books with the fifth graders also allowed me to gently, hesitantly, bring up gender diversity. Last summer I read and reviewed George, by Alex Gino, winner of the 2016 Stonewall Award, which is given to "works of exceptional merit for children and teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience." I decided not to put Gino's book on the shelf in the library, not because of the content, but because I was not sure if my students would understand it. However, once I mentioned gender diversity, right away, one of my students asked, "Like transgender?" and a brief conversation followed where I was able to talk about the book George. More than a few students expressed interest in reading it and it was on the shelf and checked out the very next day. Without Last Stop on Market Street winning the Newbery, this might have never happened.
While I wish I had reviewed and taken Last Stop on Market Street to school to read to students right when I received it, and also that I had not had an initially negative reaction to hearing that it won the Newbery (and not the Caldecott) I am deeply grateful that this series of events brought me to the experience I had (and will continue to have) with my students last week after it won the Newbery. I am deeply grateful that Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson created this uncommon book, one that I hope opens the doors to many, many more like it.
Source: Review Copy