Book review: Last Stop on Market Street

Have you read Last Stop on Market Street yet? It’s the first picture book AND the first Latino author, Matt de la Pena, to ever win the Newberry medal. If you haven’t, pick it up, because it’s gorgeous.

Of course, even with a book this lovely, there’s controversy. Apparently, some commentators think that diversity can’t exist simultaneously with quality. Which is ridiculous.

This deceptively simple story, with equally deceptively simple pictures by Christian Robinson, chronicles the journey of a little boy, CJ, and his grandmother across town by bus. Along the way, CJ asks his grandmother questions like “How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?” and “Nana, how come we don’t got a car?”

His grandmother answers with grace: “We got a bus that breathes fire, and old Mr. Dennis, who always has a trick for you.” (Sure enough, Mr. Dennis the bus driver has a magic trick for CJ.) In the illustration, the bus has the image of a fire-breathing dragon along its side, merging imagination with reality the way young children do.

On the bus, CJ and his Nana interact with a variety of people, and Nana sees the beauty in each person. My favorite line comes after CJ asks about “crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, / graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores.” The illustrations show a cityscape, but a flock of grey and black pigeons flying across the front of buildings and a fence prepare for Nana’s answer:

“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

The mixed-media art looks like cut paper layered and painted or colored to create a bright, textured cityscape. Simple shapes, gestures, and details convey surprising depths of emotion with what appear to be a few strokes.

The language conveys CJ’s and Nana’s voices in realistic, imperfect syntax, capturing spoken word. Narration features rhymes and rhythms that float across pages like improvisational jazz, perfectly suited for reading aloud again and again.

This book made me think of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, another beautiful story about a simple day, as well as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (and Sesame Street)–celebrations of vibrant city life and loving communities. I want to live on Market Street, a testament to the beauty, amid the “dirt,” that its creators witnessed there.