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

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