DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There's a new picture book that takes children on a journey, not to an imaginary land far, far away but to a much more real place. "Last Stop On Market Street" follows a little boy on a city bus - CJ is his name - and he's riding with his nana. That's grandmother for those of you not in the know about nanas. Along the way, CJ encounters a range of characters, including a homeless man and a bus passenger who's covered in tattoos. He also experiences cultural and economic differences just like you'd find in any city across America. The book is written and illustrated by two young guys whose own backgrounds inform every page. Here is the illustrator, Christian Robinson, reading a bit.
CHRISTIAN ROBINSON: (Reading) From the bus stop, he watched water pool on flower petals, watched rain patter against the windshield of a nearby car. His friend, Colby, climbed in, gave CJ a wave and drove off with his dad. Nana, how come we don't have a car? Boy, what you need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire and old Mr. Dennis who always has a trick for you.
GREENE: Old Mr. Dennis is the driver who CJ would encounter each day on the bus. Now, Christian, whose voice you heard there, is the illustrator. He actually grew up riding the bus in Los Angeles with his nana who raised him. When it came to creating little CJ's thoughts and words, the book's author, Matt de la Pena, thought of his own California childhood.
MATT DE LA PENA: Yeah. I grew up in a very working-class neighborhood right down by the border in San Diego in a town called National City. And I think one of the - my big takeaways from my childhood was I saw my dad get up every day 5 o'clock in the morning and go to work, working-class job. I saw my mom hustle, do every different job she could to provide for us. We never had quite enough, but we made it work. And I think my goal with everything I write - you know, picture books, novels - is to kind of show the grace and dignity on the, quote, unquote, "wrong side of the tracks."
GREENE: And as write Matt de la Pena tells it, the inspiration for "Last Stop On Market Street" also sprang from a little bit of luck. Matt had never worked with Christian Robinson until he saw one of Christian's drawings.
DE LA PENA: Yeah. It was an illustration of a young boy on a bus with his grandmother. And I was really, really into that illustration because it kind of hit home for me because my grandmother is sort of the matriarch of my family. And then I sort of launched into this idea of, gosh, kids are inundated with so many advertisements of things that they should have and they develop this idea of like I want, I want, I want. And I feel like, where is the counter story to that? And I felt like the grandmother was such a great vehicle for but you have, you have, you have.
GREENE: And so listening to that, Christian, I mean, is that the experience that you had with your grandmother and you were illustrating? Or where did it come from?
ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, that's pretty accurate, I would say, except I think my grandmother was less, you know, polite and gentle in her way...
ROBINSON: ...Of slapping me into reality of, you know, not complaining and recognizing, you know, the blessings that are in front of me.
GREENE: So if not as polite, how would she tell you that you had to appreciate the blessings you had?
ROBINSON: There may be some light physical...
ROBINSON: ...Sort of like, you know...
GREENE: Smack over the head?
ROBINSON: Exactly. But also, it was like a sandwich. The bread was sort of like the discipline and the meat and the, you know, vegetables were kind of like the love. So it was balanced.
GREENE: Well, let's just hear a little more from the book. And just to set the scene, CJ has been watching different people get on this bus. I mean, there was a blind man and his guide dog. There's an elderly woman with a jar of butterflies. There's a man with a guitar. And this is when a couple of teenagers listening to music on an iPod stop on to the bus. And, Christian, why don't you start reading a bit, and, Matt, you can pick up?
ROBINSON: Sure. (Reading) Two older boys got on next. CJ watched as they moved on by and stood in the back. Sure wish I had one of those, he said. Nana set down her knitting. What for? You got the real thing sitting across from you. Why don't you ask the man if he'll play us a song? CJ didn't have to ask. The guitar player was already plucking his strings and beginning to sing. To feel the magic, the blind man whispered, I like to close my eyes. Nana closed her eyes, too. So did CJ and the spotted dog.
DE LA PENA: (Reading) 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.
GREENE: You know, there suddenly on that page, we get to kind of the imagination that you sometimes see in children's books. But it feels like you guys did something different with how you got there.
DE LA PENA: Yeah. And I think one of the big things for me with this book, I wanted to write a book featuring diverse characters. But the book isn't about diversity. It could be any characters, but they're just on this bus. But that's very important to me. I don't think every book has to be about the Underground Railroad for it to be an African-American title.
GREENE: Christian, as an illustrator, how do you make children's books more diverse without I guess falling into the type of trap that Matt's describing?
ROBINSON: Right. I think for me, diversity is of course important. But on any project I work on, the most, like, essential element is fun. I really have to enjoy what I'm doing. I really have to sort of give it a spirit of play and enjoyment. And I feel oftentimes books that focus on diversity, there tends to be an element of heaviness, maybe because the history is heavy and serious. But I feel like a part of evolution of telling diverse stories that can reach wider audiences is making sure it's, like, told in a way that is playful and fun and, you know, I hope - does that make sense? - like everyone can sort of just take it in?
DE LA PENA: Absolutely. You know, this is a book that features an African-American boy and his African-American grandmother. And I think sometimes in the past, those books were set aside for kids of color. And I really, really hope that everybody reads this. I hope suburban white children are read this book as well.
GREENE: Well, guys, thank you so much for coming on and talking about the book. We really appreciate the time.
ROBINSON: Thank you.
DE LA PENA: Thanks so much for covering this book.
GREENE: That's writer Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson. Their new children's book is called "Last Stop On Market Street." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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