Best Kind of People Watching
March 26, 2015 § 2 Comments
Growing up in New York City, my preferred mode of transportation was always the bus. It didn’t matter whether I was going twenty blocks or a hundred blocks. I loved the noises: the lurch as we pulled over every two blocks to stop; the hiss as the bus lowered down to let people off. I loved the creeping pace, which allowed me to stare up at the buildings towering above, or down at the crowds of shoppers swarming the sidewalks. Most of all, I was transfixed by the cross-section of people squeezed in around me, some conversing with their neighbors, others plugged into headphones. Each person had a story that I could only guess at. And each bus displayed an unpredictable amalgamation of skin colors, clothing, smells, sizes, and languages.
Ride a New York City bus for long enough, and there’s nothing you don’t see. It’s like having your finger on the pulse of life. I would feel at once safely nestled into my community and distinctly vulnerable to the uncertainty of what might happen next.
You can imagine my dismay when I discovered, on a weekend trip to NYC with my son, that he does not innately share my enthusiasm for bus travel. En route from 96th to 12th street, it didn’t take long (in his defense, our bus did seem to be stalling more than moving) before JP looked at me with exasperation—and, frankly, puzzlement.
“This is taking forever! Why aren’t we taking the subway?”
“We took the subway this morning, because we were in a rush, but now we get to take our time and look at all the sights going by,” I responded cheerfully, pointing out a dog walker struggling to shepherd twelve dogs across a busy intersection.
“OK, then why aren’t we taking a taxi?”
And so it went: JP peppering me with a thousand reasons why anything, anything else would be better than taking a bus. And, all the while, the population was shifting around him, hundreds of opportunities to learn passing him by unnoticed.
Fast forward several months. I am home in Alexandria, Virginia, at the library with my kids, and the woman in front of me is checking out Last Stop on Market Street, a new picture book by author Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson (Ages 4-10). I had recently read a few glowing reviews of the book, so I asked the woman if I might quickly page through it before she left. And then I started FREAKING OUT. Because this is what I do when I discover a book that is so insanely perfect, so desperately needed, so bursting with warmth and love and generosity and goodness. I feel an anticipatory joy coursing through my veins; I start getting all twitchy; and my brain starts cycling through lists of people that need to know about this book immediately.
In this case, that would be everyone. Every child needs to hear and see this book.
And lots more like it.
Last year, spurred in part by a rousing op-ed written by bestselling African-American children’s author Walter Dean Myers—titled “Where are the people of color in children’s books?”—a challenge was issued to the publishing community (you can read my response to Myers here). Growing up in Harlem in the ‘50s, Myers explains, he never saw himself reflected in the children’s books he read. In one singularly important way, these books failed him: “What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”
Seventy years later, things are not much better. A subsequent article in the Washington Post points out that HALF of all five year olds living right now in the US belong to a racial or ethnic minority, yet only 3% of children’s books star non-white children. Moreover, books that do feature diverse characters are often tagged as “issues” books—shelved at the back of bookstores and given visibility only around, say, Black History Month. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a call for books featuring contemporary, everyday life in urban settings. Books showcasing the kind of medley of humanity that one might find on any given day on a New York City bus.
De la Pena and Robinson have delivered just such a book. Only here’s the best part: at the same time that they’ve set their story against a diverse inner-city backdrop, at the same time that they’ve cast two African-American characters as its stars, they’ve also managed to create a story that feels entirely universal—a story whose emotional center will feel accessible to every young child listening, regardless of race or class or ethnicity. (If the story doesn’t immediately draw in the reader, the bold, electric, mixed-media art certainly will. Christian Robinson is not the latest Hot Shot of children’s picture books for nothing.)
On its surface, Last Stop on Market Street is about a boy and his grandmother’s weekly Sunday ritual of riding the #5 bus to its very last stop. Their destination, as revealed in the book’s final pages, is a soup kitchen, where the two will spend the afternoon volunteering.
But to me—and, I like to think, to all readers—Last Stop on Market Street is really about the way in which we see the world. About the choices each of us have in how we respond to what’s happening around us—how we let those things make us feel. It’s a book about perspective; a book that’s filled with juxtapositions.
CJ walks with his grandmother to the bus stop, at once delighted to be finished with church (“the outside air smelled like freedom”), but also resentful that his friends get to drive away in their cars, while he stands waiting for the bus in the rain (“which freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose”).
“Nana, how come we don’t got a car?”
“Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire…”
Once aboard the bus, CJ’s ambivalence—and his nana’s creative spin on it—continues. He’s intrigued by a woman with curlers in her hair and butterflies in a jar, but equally intrigued by what he might be missing by not being with his friends.
“How come we always gotta go here
after church?” CJ said.
“Miguel and Colby never have to go nowhere.”
“I feel sorry for those boys,” she told him.
“They’ll never get a chance to meet Bobo
or the Sunglass Man.
And I hear Trixie got herself a brand-new hat.”
When CJ makes a dismissive comment about a blind man on the bus not being able to see, Nana responds, “Some people watch the world with their ears.”
When CJ expresses envy for the kids on the bus who are listening to iPods, Nana points out the man sitting opposite them, plucking strings on his guitar: “You got the real live thing sitting across from you.”
While, over the course of the ride, CJ’s mood begins to lift, he is thrown for a loop when they exit the bus into a neighborhood much poorer than the one from which they came: streets with “crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores.” Once again, the unfiltered judgment with which CJ speaks feels distinctly familiar to us as parents of young children.
“How come it’s always so dirty over here?” [CJ asked.]
She smiled and pointed to the sky.
“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ,
you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
CJ saw the perfect rainbow arcing over their soup kitchen.
He wondered how his nana always found beautiful
where he never even thought to look.
By the time the two reach the soup kitchen and CJ catches sight of familiar faces in the window, he professes to his grandmother, “I’m glad we came.” And the best part: his nana doesn’t laugh; she doesn’t launch into a preachy speech about how all his whining was for nothing; she doesn’t even roll her eyes. She answers, respectfully and plainly, an inspiration to us all: “Me too, CJ. Now come on.”
Our children may kick and scream the whole way—it is their right, it is what comes naturally to them—but it doesn’t mean we should ever stop exposing them to the messy, uncomfortable, tedious, difficult sides of life. We must stand beside them; we must hold their hands and help them bear witness. We must use our humor and our patience and our grace to help them learn to adjust the lens through witch they see. To find hope and beauty and possibility in the most unlikely of places. To feel the very pulse of this ever-shrinking global village that is our world.
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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!