(published in Charlotte Observer and News and Observer February 25, 2016)
I wanted Matt de la Peña’s “Last Stop on Market Street” (G.P. Putnam, ages 5-9) to win the Caldecott Award, the honor bestowed by the American Library Association to the best illustrated book of the year. I loved the beautiful imagery of Christian Robinson’s evocative picture, as well as the tender relationship between CJ and his grandmother. CJ complains about all he doesn’t have while his optimistic grandmother sees wonder all around them. Gradually Nana’s magical perspective changes her grandson.
“Last Stop on Market Street” did win a Caldecott Honor, but it rocked the children’s book world because it also won the Newbery Medal, the award given “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” The Newbery is traditionally given to a novel, but this choice made total sense to me. The book’s fine literary qualities and the complicated discussions it could engender could call for more sophisticated listeners.
This became all the more clear when I listened to Lizan Mitchell’s recording of “Last Stop on Market Street” (Recorded Books, ages 6 and up). Her dynamic reading makes the grandson-grandmother relationship so vivid, even second graders would appreciate it.
“CJ pushed through the church doors,” begins the story, and Mitchell utters the word “pushed” with such force you can feel the boy’s eagerness to escape. She maintains this strong sense of emotion throughout her reading.
And then comes the dialogue, the core of the book. “How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?” CJ asks, and adds, when he sees a friend getting into a car, “How come we don’t got a car?” Mitchell expresses his youthful, grumpy frustration perfectly, setting a tone that strengthens Nana’s counterpoint.
Nana’s response is, at first, tinged with irritation. “What do we need a car for?” and then softens with prosaic possibilities. “We got a bus that breathes fire and old Mr. Dennis, who always has a trick for you.”
As if supporting CJ’s world view, “the bus creaked to a stop and sighed and sagged.” Mitchell’s narrative accents de la Pena’s superb alliterative word choices.
The bus riders are introduced quickly and warmly. The driver pulls a coin from behind CJ’s ear, a man tunes a guitar and Mitchell’s musicality emphasizes a hint of internal rhyme in the intriguing description, “an old woman with curlers had butterflies in a jar.” Nana’s characterization deepens as she is a model of cordial civility and makes sure CJ acts the same.
When a blind man enters, CJ innocently comments, “How come that man can’t see?” Again, Nana’s response is mixed. She first corrects CJ’s rudeness, then adds an invitation to see the world differently, “some people watch the world with their ears.”
Mitchell gives full voice to the richness of Nana’s voice, the wisdom of her words.
“To feel the magic of music, I like to close my eyes,” the blind man says. CJ tries it and Mitchell’s tone shifts from rooted to ethereal, raises an octave, quickens in pace to measure CJ’s transformation from testy to enchanted as he sees “sunset colors swirling over crashing waves, saw a family of hawks slicing through the sky, saw the old woman’s butterflies dancing free in the light of the moon … he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.”
This segues to a changed CJ. Mitchell’s voice becomes more straightforward, but there’s no doubt that wonder has crept into CJ’s world view.