Huge thanks to Monique de Varennes for providing the re-cap of our last meeting!
This month we read The Port Chicago 50, by Steve Sheinkin, and our picture book was Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Pena, with illustrations by Christian Robinson.
There was universal praise for The Port Chicago 50, a middle grade nonfiction book centering on a largely forgotten incident that occurred during World War II. After an explosion, 50 black sailors in the segregated U.S. Navy refused to return to the dangerous task of loading ammunition, and were charged with mutiny, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms. To this day, all appeals to reverse their convictions have been unsuccessful.
We were all riveted by Steve Sheinkin’s account, feeling that the length of the book was perfect for kids just starting to explore history, and that the generous use of photos and first-person accounts brought the story to life. We appreciated the way Sheinkin uses these events as a springboard for exploring important issues, primarily racism; he vividly portrays how the racial climate of the time fed into every aspect of the Port Chicago events, from the all-black crews to the trial, which he clearly feels is rigged. Historical characters like Thurgood Marshall play a part in the narrative, which also touches on issues like worker safety, and the way big institutions can be brought to change – as the Navy began its slow move toward integrating its personnel not long after Port Chicago. Also noted was the way complex ethical questions are woven into the narrative at all levels. We agreed that Sheinkin’s biases were clear throughout the book, but didn’t feel that posed a problem. We were split on the quality of the writing: some thought that a slightly more literary style might inspire young readers more, while others felt his straightforward prose was forceful and well suited to the story. As a group, though, we were moved, educated, and engaged by this book.
Last Stop on Market Street also received praise, especially for its lovely, inventive writing and delightful illustrations. The narrative focuses on the bus ride of a young boy, CJ, and his Nana, after church on a Sunday, to a destination that remains hidden until the story's end, and it describes their interaction with the colorful characters they meet on their way. Most of us agreed that the story captures a child's perspective and sense of wonder as he discovers new aspects of the world around him, always in the safe company of his Nana. On the negative side, one reader thought that the Nana was a bit too wise and optimistic, but that this excessive sweetness was countered somewhat by the character of the boy, who isn't always as positive as she is. Also, several of us felt that the book fizzled toward the end: although their surprise destination, a soup kitchen, is interesting, any tension surrounding where they're headed fades early in the story, and not much happens when they get there. However, most thought the strengths of the book outweighed the weaknesses.