Thursday, January 28, 2016

Reviewing While White: Last Stop on Market Street

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?


Ms. Anna said...

Hi! As the writer of that SLJ review, I can tell you I didn't mean that sentence as a slight against Last Stop or other books that cover those topics AT ALL. Instead, I meant to point out the simple fact that those are topics that don't come up as often in picture books, thereby bringing more attention to and pointing out the value of Last Stop. If anything, it's a slight against publishing, and the kinds of books that are valued, which supports your overall message here. I am actually quite heartbroken that that my statement came off that way. When you only have 250 words, each one counts, and it sounds like I chose poorly. "Last Stop" was one of my favorite books last year, and I've been championing it since I got my review copy.

Nina Lindsay said...

Ms. Anna, for whatever it's worth, I could tell it wasn't intended as a slight, and I know how hard it is to express a paragraph in a word! Thanks for clarifying the intention. I agree with you. Ultimately, the point is the same.... why DO we see less about these themes in children's books? Using different interpretations of the word "popular," is there a sentiment that this won't be "popular" with readers? Or is it not "popular" among the gatekeepers?

Anonymous said...

I don't think we do see less about these themes in children's books, especially if the book features African American characters. Usually those books fall into one of three categories: slavery, civil rights or urban/ghetto. To me this is just one more book depicting poc as poor and urban. How popular it is may depend partly on your community. I'm in a community that isn't very diverse. These kinds of books aren't popular here. Doesn't mean you don't still promote/share/read them but it does make the effort more challenging. I also struggle with reading this book and perpetuating the stereotype of poor minorities in dirty ghettos with white children who don't know any differently. T

Nina Lindsay said...

Thanks for this comment, which shows for me more of your thoughts about the book than ice seen before. Makes me think of the Oscar's and the limited roles Black actors are recognized for (slaves, servants, or Magical Negroes). I felt like I was seeing more in this book though. Am I wrong? For instance, on the first page "the air smelled like freedom". That to me has multiple levels of meaning. It can mean CJ is just glad to be out of church. Or, that, AND he carries with him the sermon itself.

I'm hearing you about not pertuating stereotypes of dirty ghettoes. I think this book gets beyond that by blasting directly through it, unapologetically.

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess I wish there were more of that or at least that there were less of the, "How come it's so dirty here" line of thinking. That's my own bias showing, though.

Pat said...

I wonder if the question of circulating Last Stop in predominately homogeneous White communities, has to do with a presumption of non-equivalence. The expressions of interconnection between CJ and his community, mediated by his Nana, are present in all communities. CJ's story foregrounds material inequities in a way that many White communities may not recognize as a valid part of their own storyline (despite the realities of difference and inequality in every community). A narrative that features a young Black child and his Nana, making the world together, seems to me to be exactly what every community can/should read, talk about, and build on as a starting point for meaningful dialogue about racial disparities and how we are responsible for changing storylines and our futures--person by person, interaction by interaction.
A second, third, or fourth reading may be especially important for 'getting inside' the story on CJ's terms. He is asking about his world and inequality and finding answers that help him understand that he can be accountable to his community while imagining and building something new out of the resources around him. He doesn't escape a 'dirty ghetto.' He transforms the resources around him into a host of possibilities and images that inspire so many artists have done wherever their communities may be.

Pat said...

I'm kinda new to blogging etiquette. Just realized that my full name is not evident in the post: Hi! Pat Enciso.