On the Way to Empathy

How to spot beauty in all its motley habitats is the rare insight offered by a wise, patient grandmother in Matt de la Peña’s life-affirming picture book Last Stop on Market Street. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
Young CJ and his grandmother leave their city church with its bright stained-glass windows to board a bus across town. As they travel, the child, feeling a bit irritable, peppers his grandmother with typically puerile complaints.
The boy objects to the rain, then to the lack of a family car, and even to this Sunday excursion with his grandmother. Yet each time he perceives something negative, Nana calls his attention to the positive aspects he’s overlooked. Rain? “Trees get thirsty, too,” she points out. And instead of a car, the two of them get to ride in “a bus that breathes fire,” with a driver who shares magic tricks.
The trip itself takes on deeper meaning, especially as portrayed by Christian Robinson’s bright, naïf images created with acrylics, collage, and digital enhancements. Along with CJ, readers will encounter an intriguing array of riders, ranging from a peach-colored guitarist, a gray-haired woman holding a jar filled with butterflies, the smiling caramel-toned conductor, the pale bald-headed fellow with green tatooes, and the sad-eyed businessman.
CJ has not lost his tetchiness yet, though. When a blind man boards the bus with his dog, the boy asks, “How come that man can’t see?”. The grandmother’s simple response is rich with symbolic beauty: “Boy, what do you know about seeing?”
Tellingly, the grandmother is not the only one with valuable insight to share with the child. The blind man and then the guitarist inspire the child to experience the world with sensitivity and exuberance.
As CJ and Nana reach their destination, readers finally discover it’s a soup kitchen. We have accompanied this pair from one side of town to the other, traversing different socioeconomic neighborhoods and arriving at a fuller appreciation of both humanity’s needs and its wondrous diversity. It’s been a magical journey.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Nana in the City by Lauren CastilloMadlenka by Peter SisCastle on Viola Street by DiSalvo

Josephine Sizzles

Just in time for Black History Month, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a vibrant biography of a woman who defied society’s stereotypes and restrictions as she danced around the world.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby PowellWith lively free verse that evokes the Roaring Twenties ragtime that Josephine Baker reveled in, the author crafts a story worthy of such a unique artist. Ms. Powell’s use of  quotes gives young readers a feeling for Josephine’s energy, drive, and creativity. This, for instance, is how the bio begins: “I shall dance all my life. … I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”

She also varies the typeface, font, and size of some of the words: “She flung her arms,/she flung her legs./Like she flung her heart and her soul./’Cause DANCIN’ makes you HAPPY/when nothing’ else will.”

We follow Josephine as she leaves the slums of Saint Louis to join the Dixie Steppers in performing for audiences as far south as New Orleans, “where signs for one latrine read WHITE ladies/and another, COLORED women, where a white person wouldn’t sell you/a cup of coffee./Because you were/NEGRO.”

From there, Josephine Baker made her way to New York and finally to the City of Light, Paris, where, she recounted, “For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.” She was all the rage, and, unlike in segregated America, people tried to dress like her, arrange their hair like her, and tanned to look like Josephine. She would stride down the Champs-Elysees with her pet leopard, Chiquita, “each wearing a diamond choker–/as REGAL as a queen by day/as WILD as a leopard by night.”

Later, when France entered World War II, Josephine Baker joined the Red Cross and spied for the country that had given her so much. She also showed her brave, generous spirit by adopting 12 children of various races from nations around the world. She “felt the whole world was represented in her family. She called them her RAINBOW TRIBE.”

Divided into six acts, or chapters, this biography vibrates with Christian Robinson’s spirited illustrations done in acrylic paints. The abundance of bright two-page spreads will keep many a reader engaged and longing for more.

This is one DAZZLING tribute to one sassy woman. Highly recommended for upper-elementary and middle-school students.

And don’t miss:

My post on Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu
and my post of the Coretta Scott King winner, Bryan Collier.

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