by Nina Lindsay
Last Stop on Market Street almost doesn’t need a review here, as for the most part the major review sources did it justice, and it seemed to be doing quite well even before its groundbreaking success at the Youth Media Awards announcements. But the awards it garnered, and the responses to them, are worth reflecting on, and in the midst of Cakestorm, we wanted to turn some attention back to it.
At the blog Heavy Medal I and others talked about the book from a Newbery perspective when the awards were announced as well as a few days later. I won’t reiterate the many examples in the comments of the effectiveness of the text, but if you browse through them you will also find there some of the criticism Sam mentioned here in Housekeeping and the YMAs.
I grow more and more curious about the responses that criticize this book as an award winner, suggesting the choice was “political rather than based on the actual merits of the books” or that “diversity trumped quality.” What is it about the book that make people suppose this? One commenter at Heavy Medal said:
“...there was a definite message the reader was supposed to get and the author was going to make sure they got it. I think the best stories are ones that speak a truth in a way that is eloquent, lyrical, thoughtful without being didactic. They show a mastery of literary skill and storytelling which speaks to readers of any age. Imo, “Market” doesn’t measure up to that.”
This makes me wonder if there isn’t a prejudice against certain kinds of messages within children’s literature. I don’t care for a heavy-handed message myself, and I think young readers can smell them a mile off. But being heavy-handed is very different than deliberately crafting a message to an audience in a way that allows interpretation. That is, in essence, what most writing is doing, and Pat Enciso, in her review of the book at Latin@s in KidLit, unpacks exactly how marvelously Last Stop on Market Street achieves this:
“On the face of it, CJ is asking for what kids (and adults) often desire: to be unconstrained and worry-free, to have easy access to pleasure and fun. Stories can create this kind of world for children; and many adults think this is what stories for young readers should do. Instead, Last Stop on Market Street honors the realities that exist beyond the readymade worlds of comfort and privilege.”
Is it the delivery of the message, or the message itself that has some people upset? I noticed a slight in this regard in the otherwise positive SLJ review: “This is an excellent book that highlights less popular topics such as urban life, volunteerism, and thankfulness.” Less popular how, exactly, and why? Is there, in our critical industry, a normative type of story for children that creates an “unconstrained and worry-free” world for readers, so that a book that addresses this desire in a different way is seen as less popular, or political, or of lesser quality?
The more I read the book, the more I appreciate the way CJ responds, ultimately, to his own questions. The narrative describes what CJ comprehends from his Nana in gestures, showing rather than telling. “Nana gave everyone a great big smile / and a ‘good afternoon.’ / She made sure CJ did the same.” … “A man climbed aboard with a spotted dog. / CJ gave up his seat.” And “Nana glanced at the coin in CJ’s palm. / CJ dropped it in the man’s hat.” This coin is the one that the driver pulled from behind CJ’s ear as they boarded the bus. When CJ drops it in the musician’s hat, Mr. Dennis calls out “Last Stop on Market Street” and they head into the final transformative pages of their trip. This transactional metaphor--the receiving and giving of the coin as passage--serves as a turning point in the narrative as CJ sees his city in new way, emphasized by fleeting rhymes in a musical rhythm of the last few pages.
This is a book clearly deserving of its accolades, and sets a standard in storytelling and illustration as award winners should do. It is also an important book for what is says, as well as how. As Pat Enciso says in her review:
“It is a story where it matters that CJ is a Black child spending Sunday with his grandmother. It is a story where it matters still more that CJ and his Nana ask each other hard questions and make space for complex answers.”
So did “diversity trump quality,” with a “heavy handed” message? Or is it the message itself that some people feel is not deserving of recognition?