In an usual turn of events, the top U.S. prize in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal, recently went to a picture book! Unusual, because the Newbery focuses solely on the quality and message of a story and not the pictures. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, written by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers), is the story of a boy, CJ, and his Nana and the beauty, color and energy she helps him to see in the city around him. It’s a feast for the senses in both picture and story, as CJ’s eyes are opened to people and places he might not otherwise see if it weren’t for Nana’s wisdom and special way of looking at the world.
But how did this 760-word picture book (yes, I counted) manage to get the attention of the Newbery committee this year and come out on top? I would venture to say- not because I’m an expert, just a student of this genre who is always looking for reasons why to love a particular book- it’s the practically perfect and musical use of words and story-telling techniques that get the message of this piece across so clearly and vividly. Basically, you could hear this story read aloud with your eyes closed and still “see” what the author wanted you to see even without the pictures!
Now that’s not to say that the pictures are not equally as powerful to this piece as the words, but since we’re talking about the Newbery here, the story must work on its own.
But for those of us who write picture books, this honor sends somewhat of a mixed message (stay with me here, I’m getting to the point). In almost every workshop, class and seminar designed for picture book writers, we hear, “Leave room for the illustrator to tell the story through pictures,” “Don’t do the illustrator’s job,” “Don’t give away too much so the illustrator has room to create.” We hear it from editors, agents and even from other picture book authors. And all of those things are very true. However, in this case, Matt De La Pena writes a story that sings from beginning to end and does it so perfectly a reader might actually see exactly what the illustrator depicted even if he or she had never seen the pictures. That’s the power of his words and the magic that every writer/illustrator team hopes to achieve with a picture book.
For example, if you look on the very first pages you’ll read, “The outside air smelled like freedom, but it also smelled like rain, which freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose.” Did the author need to say the rain freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose? I mean, the illustrator could have just shown that instead. But having those words there, in my opinion, gave the illustrator complete freedom to set the rest of the stage. To put in the tree and the buildings and CJ and Nana walking down the steps of the church. To give the reader a true sense of place so that Nana and CJ’s story could continue, completely unhampered by the need to say more.
And each page does the same work. We read about Nana’s umbrella, and water pooling on flower petals and the bus creaking to a stop in front of them and sighing and sagging as the doors opened…absolutely beautiful and necessary words even though the pictures are also there to create an even richer environment in which the story can unfold.
Why does this excite me? Because I’m a lover of words. I love the music they make when they string together in just-right ways. I love the emotions they convey and the power they have to heal and hurt, teach and tease. I love the laughter they evoke and even the tears, because those things are real and in everyone and for everyone, no matter how young or old. Nana teaches these things to CJ while on their journey, and without her powerful words, guiding him at every step, he would not be able to draw the conclusions he draws about the world around him and the people in it. I want the stories I write to sing in this way, and the fact that this picture book received this well-deserved honor means there’s still room for people like me who like a story that works. Stories that work make room for pictures that make the story sing even louder and more beautifully.
So here’s to perfect picture books! LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET fits that description in every way.
Sensibility- Words have power. Use them to inform, enlighten and uplift rather than to tear down and destroy.
Sense- Take an honest look at your stories. Ask yourself if they work even without pictures, and make revisions accordingly.
What are some practically-perfect picture books you enjoy reading?