Ma quando vien lo sgelo
il primo sole è mio
il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio!
-Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme
It has long been asserted that those who appreciate sublimity the most have experienced the worst kind of squalor and impoverishment. It has also been posed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what is one person’s nightmare is another’s eternal joy. In Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street, each one of these adages is applicable to the story of a young boy and his grandmother who have close to nothing, but come to find appreciation, indeed inspiration from everyday urban life. The picture book is also a subtle repudiation of capitalist excess, and a call for a life of sensory immersion. De la Pena implies there is light at the end of the tunnel, and happiness is almost never contingent upon geography.
Much of the drama in Last Stop on Market Street plays out in a bus that maintains a route that travels up and down the street of the title. The title page pictures the two main characters, while the double page dedication spread street of cars, bicycle riders, dog walkers and people walking. Between the house is a church with stain glass windows, that takes center stage in the next spread, where rain has begun. CJ likes the freedom of leaving the church, though he now has to deal with the wet stuff. The first of his many questions to his Nana throughout the book was in regard to why they needed to stand in the rain, albeit under an umbrella, waiting for a bus. The Nana makes a funny quip about trees needing water, but that is her normal mindset – she is a mountain of good will and positive energy, and always looks at the bright side of even the most dire equations. When the boy sees his friend climb into a spiffy blue car he asks her why they can’t own a car. While the answer is painfully obvious Nana spins it as a clear case of better opportunity, pointing to the fire-breathing dragon on a side poster of the bus, and the trickster Mr. Dennis, who drives it. After they board the bus, CJ hands over a coin to Mr. Dennis, while Nana voices her deep laugh. They sit in the front near a marvelous cast of characters, including a man tuning a guitar, and a woman in curlers with a jar of butterflies. They all exchanged greetings, even CJ at his Nan’s behest.
CJ again laments that they always have to take this bus ride to the usual destination, but that his friends Miguel and Colby never have to. Nana tells him that she feels sorry for those boys as they will never get a chance to meet Bobo or the Sunglass Man. CJ looks out the window forlornly. A blind man with a seeing eye dog boards the bus, and Nana tells her grandson the man sees the world with his ears. Another man on the bus concurs and adds that they see with their noses too. When two older boys with music cams board the bus, CJ tells his Nana that he wished he had one of those, but Nana tells him live music is preferable any day, urging him to ask the guitar player to do a song. He was already starting up. The blind man tells Nana that to feel the magic of music he closes his eyes. Nana, CJ and the spotted dog follows suit.
Then comes the most shattering spread in the book both for the author and illustrator, the real Mi Chiamano Mimi moment that could well be the final straw in winning the book the Caldecott Medal. De la Pena waxes operatic with a passage of enormous descriptive power:
And in the darkness, the rhythm lifted CJ out of the bus, out of the busy city. / He saw 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./CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.
Robinson answers the call with one of the most moving and beautiful spreads of his career, featuring CJ with arms spread dressed in a sun yellow shirt with colorful designs, butterflies and hawks overhead in a burst of euphoric meditation that is as enchanting as it is celestially buoyant. The power of music has rarely been visualized in a picture book in such transcendent terms.
CJ returns to earth when the song ends and drops a coin in the player’s hat at Nana’s urging. The driver announces that have arrived at the final stop, as CJ departs a very happy camper. Reality sets in as they pass street of broken doors and graffiti, and previous businesses now shuttered. Nana explains to CJ that being surrounded by dirt allows for the best appreciation of beauty. The symbolic entrance of a rainbow over their soup kitchen shows that the human spirit is alive and well even in a state of near poverty. The two page spread is one of Robinson’s most arresting, with his trademark use of radiant color in acrylic collage to show there is goodness even in deprivation. The soup kitchen as CJ finds out is a place of renewed acquaintance – getting together with good people over a meal. There is genuine bliss in camaraderie, which is often missing in upscale neighborhoods where entitlement and airs make the walk of life less sincere, less authentic. Robinson uses color like a wizard in this final panel, indeed he expresses the book’s theme with his magical brush. Last Stop on Market Street is a life affirming work in thought, word and deed that is no doubt standing tall in the Caldecott deliberations. Robinson no doubt came very close last year with a trio of superlative efforts including Josephine and Gaston, and his time may be at hand. This brilliant collaboration with De la Pena may be the ticket.
Note: This is the thirty-fourth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.