Last Stop on Market Street was among my top choices for 2016 Caldecott gold, so I was delighted when illustrator Christian Robinson won both Coretta Scott King and Caldecott honors. And, like many in the room at the ALA Youth Media Awards Announcements last January, I was also surprised — and delighted! — when it nabbed for Matt de la Peña the Newbery Medal. “I need to reread that text,” I said excitedly to a friend sitting with me.
And when I did reread the book, on my own and in shared readings with children, I “found beautiful” in the way the art and text work together and in the diversity and richness of responses to the book.
Like Robinson’s artwork, de la Peña’s writing is deceptively simple and gloriously layered. In my initial rereadings, one line in particular stood out to me: “They sat right up front.” Although it denotes where on the bus CJ and Nana sit down, it also connotes layers of history.
I brought this point up with my children when we read the book on our first night home together after my return from the conference: “Nana is African American,” I began, “so when she was a little girl, if she rode a bus with her Nana it might have been illegal for them to sit ‘right up front.’” My oldest son was home from college on his winter break, and I’d managed to gather all six of my kids, then ages eleven months to eighteen years, in the living room for what is now the incredibly rare event of an all-family storytime. The baby was most interested in climbing from one lap to another, but the other kids were engaged, and after my comment about segregation, they brought up Rosa Parks and wondered what Nana’s name was.
“Maybe it’s Rosa?” my nine-year-old daughter, Caroline, said.
Well, Nana is forever Rosa to me now.
When we reached the page where Nana greets the blind man who compliments her perfume, I read, “Nana squeezed the man’s hand and laughed her deep laugh,” and I paused for my kids’ responses to the scene, expecting some commentary about the primary characters’ interactions. Instead, my twelve-year-old daughter Emilia said,
“That person’s a creeper!”
I scanned the spread and homed in on the tattooed, bald man wearing a white tank-top.
Oh dear, I thought. We should unpack this. How could I validate my daughter’s inclination to go with her gut, but not get carried away in judgments? I resorted to the trustiest tool in my toolbox: open-ended questions.
“What do you see that makes you say that?”
“Look at her! She’s totally looking at that guy’s phone. And she was on the other page, too!”
“Yeah!” said eleven-year-old Stevie. “She’s a total creeper!” and much laughter ensued.
Oops. I’d been the one making assumptions based on appearance. Emilia, and in her footsteps, Stevie, was making a judgment on firmer ground: someone’s (the superbly specific “old woman with curlers [who] had butterflies in a jar”) actions.
Our reading went on to include conversation about how CJ reminded them of Keats’s Peter from The Snowy Day in the spread when he closes his eyes and listens to the music, and how the title of the book is a line in the story. “It’s like Where the Wild Things Are,” I offered. “The title makes you focus on the place where the characters go.”
While this connection prompted my kids to reflect on how good it is that CJ and Nana help others at the soup kitchen, thus fulfilling my intent that our reading would consider the artful way the text invites readers to engage in historical and social commentary, Emilia’s “that person’s a creeper” comment stuck with me. Her words reminded me anew that meaning resides in the space between a reader and a text. In other words, we can all arrive at different conclusions, emphases, and interpretations about and from a text based on our own epistemological frameworks.
Children’s literature exists at a tricky remove from its audience. Adults write, illustrate, and often select and read books aloud to children. This affords adults a great deal of power — including power to impose our own interpretations instead of inviting children to voice theirs. When I lead children’s storytimes, I endeavor to make their questions and responses as integral to the storytime as is the book itself. My own book Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See details this “Whole Book Approach” storytime model, which I developed in association with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. In January, I visited a kindergarten class and read Last Stop on Market Street.
One thing I like to do is to point out different book design and production elements to ask kids what they notice about them. In this book, I showed the children the endpapers and said,
“Endpapers often give us clues, so let’s take a look to see what’s here, and then remember what we talked about as we read the story.”
The children noticed that the endpapers were bright yellow like the sweater the boy (CJ) on the cover of the book wears, and then they started listing the things they saw in the endpapers’ pictures:
“A bus like on the cover!”
“A fancy money,” (a phrase from a child searching for the word coin or quarter).
And so on…
On the title page, the children recognized the boy and the woman from the jacket art and guessed that she was his grandma.
“What do you see that makes you say that?”
“She is old with white hair.”
“Yes, but that’s not her cane,” said another child. “That’s the umbrella we saw, all folded up.”
It was working. Kids were seeing how the whole book, all the parts of the book, work together to construct character and tell the story.
“Where’d they go?” asked one child when we got to the dedication page, which depicts a block of buildings and people out and about, though CJ and Nana aren’t present.
No one offered any ideas, but when I turned the page, they recognized the pair on the church steps.
“There they are!”
“I see them now!”
The group was quiet as I read the text aloud, and I watched for their reactions to the story and the illustrations. When we reached the spread depicting the bus pulling up I read Nana’s words,
“Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire,” and a child interjected, “Because of the dragon.”
The dragon? I wondered. I’d thought Nana was referring to the bus expelling exhaust or something. But then, prompted by this child, I looked more closely at the illustration and saw the fire-breathing dragon on the side of the bus.
I am not a strong visual thinker. I have to work hard to read illustrations, and oftentimes I only notice things after kids point them out to me. That’s one of the reasons that using the Whole Book Approach and slowing down to really talk about the art and design is so rewarding for me. And this particular interaction about the fire-breathing (dragon) bus also made me take a moment to think through how to get kids to examine the interdependence of art and text in other spreads. On the page that reads,
Two older boys got on next.
CJ watched as they moved on by and stood in the back.
“Sure wish I had one of those,” he said.
I paused after CJ’s statement and asked the children, “What does CJ wish he had?” to invite them to read the picture and interpret its interaction with the ambiguous text.
“A big brother,” said one kindergartner without missing a beat, and my heart melted.
Here was a child who seemed more like a pint-sized Nana in his outlook on life than a kid like CJ, questioning the world around him and needing her guidance. He was, as my mother might say, “an old soul.”
I smiled at him and said, “He is looking up at those boys, isn’t he?” and then I asked the group:
“What else might CJ be wishing for?”
“A dog!” was the next response.
This was one anti-materialistic group of kindergartners.
I read on:
Nana set down her knitting.
“What for? You got the real live thing sitting across from you. Why don’t you ask that man if he’ll play you a song.”
“Oh!” said one of the kindergartners. “He was wishing for that boy’s phone to listen to music.”
And the pieces came together. While some post-Newbery-announcement grumbling asserted a false dichotomy between diversity and quality and deemed the text heavy-handed, my experiences reading Last Stop on Market Street with children repeatedly revealed how it entrusts readers with the responsibility of interpretation. In this scene with the “two older boys,” implicit in that trust is an openness, rather than heavy-handedness, that allowed these children to articulate heartfelt wishes for big brothers and dogs before they grasped and understood CJ’s perspective.
As I turned to the recto-page text, I invited the children to close their eyes along with the blind man, Nana, CJ, and the spotted dog, and then I said, “Now open them,” so they could see Robinson’s art make music visible on the next, ebullient spread depicting CJ’s reverie. They were riveted. And as I looked at them looking at the art and hearing the words read aloud, I wondered what each child was thinking. But they didn’t offer up any comments, and sensing something sacred in the air around us, I decided not to prompt them, so specifics are lost to me. What I can be sure of is that all of them had their own thoughts and feelings and ideas in response to Robinson’s art and de la Peña’s text. Their work invites readers to interpret not just one message but a multiplicity of meanings — that is, of course, if readers are afforded the time and space to engage in that interpretation. At storytime, children are both the observers and the observed as they observe a picture book and as we adults observe that engagement. Using my observations of children at storytime to promote discussion and listen to their voices is the best means I’ve found to become “a better witness for what’s beautiful,” and that’s why reading with children, as opposed to reading to them, is such an important part of my practice.
With thanks to Molly Saunders, a student in the Children’s Literature program at Simmons College, whose paper on Last Stop on Market Street described CJ as “the observer and the observed,” which prompted me to think about how this describes children at storytime, too.
Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson (Putnam), is the winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal. Read Matt de la Peña’s 2016 Newbery Medal acceptance speech. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016.