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last stop on market street

24 january 2016

The Newbery Medal for Last Stop on Market Street is, as far as I know, unprecedented. (Never trust the extent of my knowledge, though.) I believe it is the first picture book for elementary readers ever to win the medal. Other picture books have won: A Visit to William Blake's Inn, Joyful Noise, and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!. But in those books, the text dominates, and it's not text that a beginning reader will understand, or a preschooler demand to hear over and over. And in recent years, Medal winners have featured quite a few proto-Young-Adult novels (in a move that's actually a throwback to the 1950s and early '60s). So to see the Medal awarded to a big-format colorful picture book (which won a Caldecott Honor in the bargain) is quite a surprise.

One of the best things about Last Stop on Market Street is actually on the rear endflap of the dust jacket. Author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Christian Robinson offer the usual capsule bios, and their photographs – but both choose photos of themselves as toddlers.

Protagonist CJ is more than a toddler, but he's still a pretty little kid in a vibrant sweater, sticking close by his nana. The two of them leave church and hop on the Market Street bus. CJ isn't thrilled with the public transit experience, and for a city kid he isn't much into the urban lifestyle, either, considering Market Street frankly "dirty." Nana thinks her city, for all its dirt, makes her "a better witness for what's beautiful."

The trip down Market Street is the heart of the book. It's not like most bus rides you've been on. The riders are regulars and form a vibrant mobile community. Their camaraderie jostles CJ out of his funk about the mess and inconvenience of the bus ride and his nana's insistence on her dutiful Sunday rhythm.

The journey ends at a soup kitchen where nana works as a volunteer, another familiar community that makes CJ "glad we came." One of the nicer dynamics in Last Stop on Market Street is the elision of the forces that might be pulling CJ away from his nana, the bus, the soup kitchen. We don't learn what he might rather be doing. Kids have to imagine that for themselves. Adult readers must supply things that we might have wanted to be doing as kids, or still want to be doing, things that lead us away from our communities and an acceptance of the people who fill them.

De la Peña, Matt. Last Stop on Market Street. Illustrated by Christian Robinson. New York: Putnam's [Penguin], 2015. PZ 7 .P3725Las