Themes in Last Stop on Market Street

As I said in the last blog post, multiple themes can help foster discussion of Matt De La Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, no matter what age range you decide to use the book for.  Some of the themes in the book are happiness or goodness, inequity, beauty, and community. 


Happiness and goodness can be seen clearly in CJ’s grandmother Nana. Nana seems optimistic about everything and tries to get CJ to see the bright side. When CJ and Nana go to the soup kitchen, happiness can also be seen. They are doing something good, but it also makes CJ and Nana happy to help others. 


Inequity is another theme found in Last Stop on Market Street. The story has the overarching theme of inequity regarding food insecurity and the need to use a soup kitchen, though. However, are also more underlying inequities that can be found in the story. For example, CJ and his Nana take the bus as their primary form of transportation because they do not have a car. Though it is important to note that when the story discusses these types of inequities, it does not seem to do it in a way where having less is seen as a bad thing, it is ultimately seen as a different way of living.  


The third theme, beauty, can also be tied to the theme of inequity, explicitly looking at having less as just a different way of living. Throughout the book, Nana tries to show CJ how beautiful every part of their city is through her smile and being unfazed when the bus enters the side of the city where inequality is present.


The last theme is community. The theme of community can be seen throughout Last Stop on Market Street. There is a community of volunteers at the soup kitchen and people who ride the bus. Still, there is also a larger community in the neighborhood and the community that CJ and Nana are trying to help. 

Finally, as with every Big Read, Middle Read, and Little Read book, readers can discuss many themes, but these are great jumping-off points. We hope you use these themes to start great conversations and can not wait to see what comes to your mind when you think about themes in Last Stop on Market Street by  Matt De La Peña.

Written by Nancy Gately

Lessons in Last Stop on Market Street

While we have been discussing our middle-read books a lot, it is time to switch gears and discuss our little read book for the year. This year the little read book is The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña. 

Matt de la Peña is a New York Times bestselling author and the winner of the Newbery Medal for seven of his young adult books and five picture books, including The Last Stop on Market Street. He will also be visiting the lakeshore area, including Holland, Hope College, and Muskegon, during the 2022 NEA Big Read Lakeshore season. 

According to Matt de la Peña, The Last Stop on Market Street is about a curious African American boy named CJ and his grandmother’s positive attitude: “Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don’t own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them.” 

The lessons do not stop when CJ and his grandmother get off the bus. As CJ and his grandmother exit the bus, readers learn that they made this journey to go to the local soup kitchen and serve a meal as their weekly volunteer outing. They are not only productive members of the community, but they are also able to enjoy and appreciate the community they are surrounded by. 

Ultimately, the NEA Big Read Lakeshore little read books are geared towards elementary-aged children. However, many of our past little read books and our current little read book can foster great discussions for elementary-aged students, middle school students, high school students, and even adults.

In the next blog post, we will discuss some of the themes that can help foster discussion for any age, but in the meantime, pick up a copy of The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and learn how to see the beauty in your community.

Written by Nancy Gately

Takeaways from Zita the Space Girl

Even though Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke is a must-read on its own, there are other things, specifically what the reader can take away from it, that help to solidify it as a must-read. 

One of the first takeaways is leadership. Throughout the graphic novel, Zita must learn to become a leader and live into her persona as Zita the Spacegirl. However, she must also be a leader when it comes to putting together a team and saving her friend Joseph. 

The second takeaway is closely related to leadership and why Zita has to be a leader, and that is friendship. Friendship is the true catalyst of this graphic novel. All of the action begins because of Zita’s and Joseph’s friendship. Though, friendship does not have to be only on Earth. Through her adventures in space, Zita gets to meet many different creatures who she can consider her partners and friends. 

The third takeaway from Zita the Spacegirl is trust. When Zita goes into this other world to save Joseph, not only does she have to trust herself and her skills, but she also has to trust that others have her best interest in mind. For example, Zita meets many creatures, such as Robot Randy, Mouse, and Piper, who know the universe better than she does, but she must trust that they are not going to use their knowledge to deceive her. 

 The last takeaway is choice. There are many choices that Zita and others have to make throughout the graphic novel, such as: Should Zita follow Joseph? Should Zita save herself and Joseph, or should she save the planet?  Should Piper help Zita? While the graphic novel shows many characters making many difficult decisions, one thing that it does make clear is that even with a difficult decision, the characters stand by their choice.

As always, there are plenty of more takeaways that can be found in Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. We hope that this blog post is a jumping-off point for you and that as you read the graphic novel, you will find these takeaways and your own.

-Written by Nancy Gately

Why Read Zita the Space Girl

Our third middle-grade book for this year’s NEA Big Read Lakeshore 2022 is Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. Zita the Spacegirl is a graphic novel series and can be considered our more traditional middle-grade heroes’ journey story.

The story follows a girl named Zita Danielson. On Earth, Zita is a normal twelve-year-old girl middle school girl. She is athletic, fun-loving, and loves to play with her friend Joseph. But then, a button falls to Earth, and like any inquisitive person, Zita and Joseph decide to press it, though the button opens up a portal to another dimension and whisks Joseph away. 

Now, this is not where our story ends, it is actually where it begins. Having her friend taken into an unknown universe forces Zita to do everything in her power to get him back. That includes taking on any space creatures in her path and becoming Zita the Spacegirl. 

Not only does the story of Zita help to keep readers intrigued in this space hero journey, but the story of author Ben Hatke and the art style also helps. In an interview with MacMillan Publishers, Ben Hatke explained that being a writer and an artist are not things that can be separated:

“I work a lot on the structure of my stories and I get a lot of joy out of that, but my art is not just in the service of the story, it’s very much a part of the storytelling. I find things like characters’ body language to be a wonderful storytelling tool.”

Ultimately, the goal of choosing a graphic novel like Zita the Spacegirl is to show that a hero can come in any form and that there are many different styles of hero’s journey books. Though in addition to this the team at the Big Read Lakeshore hopes that you will give Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke a try and even complete the series.

-Written by Nancy Gately

Themes in Miles Morales: Spider-Man

In the last blog post, we discussed Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds and gave a brief synopsis of the book. But what are some of the book’s main themes that you should know about, and what will be different if you decide to read the novel version and your friend chooses to read the graphic novel? 


There are three main themes in Miles Morales: Spider-Man and they are the school-to-prison pipeline, racism, and coming of age. The school-to-prison pipeline is a term that refers to a larger set of rules and policies which place students of color into the criminal justice system. This theme can be seen in many different ways throughout the book. Still, it is most prevalent when Miles and his father visit his cousin Austin in jail and when Miles notices that many of his classmates who are people of color either go missing from school or are suspended in large numbers.

The next theme, racism, is also very prevalent in the book. Mr. Chamberlin, Miles’ history teacher, seems to embody racism. In his history classes, Mr. Chamberlin frequently lectures about the Civil War, where most of them are pro-slavery. 

Finally, the last main theme is coming of age. Throughout the book, Miles not only has to deal with being Spiderman and taking down evil plots, but he also has to deal with the struggles of high school. Even if Miles goes through doubts, such as when he says to his roommate Ganke, “What good is it being a hero if I can’t even save myself?” (p.236), he ultimately learns more about himself, becomes the hero, and can save himself and others.

Novel vs. Graphic Novel

While the themes may not change that much depending on whether or not you read the novel or the graphic novel version of Miles Morales: Spider-Man, you should know some key differences.

  1. The novel has little to no mention of Spider-Man (Peter Parker).
  2. The graphic novel takes place in a world where Spider-Man (Peter Parker) has failed.
  3. The graphic novel has a more traditional “bad guy.” 
  4. The novel has a “bad guy,” but he stands in for a larger theme: racism and the school-to-prison pipeline.
  5. The novel does not focus much on the action or physical things that Miles Morales as Spider-Man can do. 
  6. The graphic novel focuses on what Miles Morales as Spider-Man can do physically or with his Spider-Man skills.
  7. The characters in both the novel and graphic novel seem to be the same. 

Hopefully, whether you read the graphic novel or the novel, you can spot the significant themes, find other themes, and have meaningful discussions about their differences.

-Written by Nancy Gately

Miles Morales: Spider-Man

If you are a fan of Marvel, then you should definitely pick up a copy of the second middle-grade read that the NEA Big Read Lakeshore has chosen, which is Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds. At this point, Jason Reynolds should be a household name for anyone who attends NEA Big Read Lakeshore events. Not only has Jason Reynolds been to Holland, Michigan before, but he is also the author of our other middle-grade read, A Long Way Down, which you can read more about in this blog post

Though what is Miles Morales: Spider-Man about? Well, the book version, there is also a graphic novel version, follows the story of Miles Morales, a half African-American and half Puerto Rican boy from Brooklyn who goes to the Brooklyn Vision School on a scholarship. His father, Jefferson Davis, is a police officer who got into trouble during his teenage years, and his uncle, Aaron, never moved past his troubling teenage years. However, Miles is trying to stay on the straight and narrow and be Spider-Man simultaneously. Even with Miles keeping his head down and focusing on school, something is still off. His spidey senses seem not to be working as well; he is suspended from school and is butting heads with his history teacher. Yet, with the help of his roommate slash best friend, Miles will find that there is a deeper reason for everything feeling off. 

Ultimately, this book has a little bit of everything for everyone. There is a connection to Spider-Man. There is the fantastic writing of Jason Reynolds. There are the relevant underlying themes, which we will discuss in the next blog post, and so much more. So, even if you are older than the typical middle-grade reader or are wondering if a Spider-Man book is for you, I highly suggest you pick up Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds and give it a try.

-Written by Nancy Gately

Themes in the Long Way Down

In the last blog post, we discussed why you should read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and even gave you some background information about the author and the book to entice you to pick it up and begin reading. This blog post will discuss the major themes that make Long Way Down a book you need to read.


Grief is a theme that is strung throughout Long Way Down. It is very clear from the beginning of the book, when the first murder happens, and the family is made aware, that grief will play a significant role in the book. Though Long Way Down does not just deal with having grief, it also deals with coming to terms with your grief and doing that in a healthy way which is what Will, the main character, does throughout the book,

A Cycle of Violence:

The cycle of violence is also an essential theme in the book and helps to push the plot along. The most memorable quote from the book, “There’s a code of conduct, and what those rules are is number one, no crying, number two, no snitching, and number three, always seek revenge.” help to show that with each act of violence more violence will follow.

Toxic Masculinity:

According to The Good Men Project, toxic masculinity is a “narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness;”. The idea that emotions are a weakness can be seen throughout the book, like in rule number one, which states no crying. 


Though not all the themes in Long Way Down are sad, some can be heartwarming, like family. Family is an essential theme in the book; it is intertwined with other themes, like grief, and it also kicks off the action when Shawn is murdered while coming home from getting an eczema cream for his mother.

Ultimately, there are many ways these four themes can be seen throughout Long Way Down and many more themes to discover. Grab a copy of Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds and tell us what themes you can find.

-Written by Nancy Gately

Why read the Long Way Down

In keeping with our 2022 NEA Big Read Lakeshore and Little Read theme that anyone can be a hero, our team decided to show that with our middle-grade books. These are books that are targeted at late elementary, middle school, and early high school students, but are perfect for any reader.  

The first middle-grade book we have chosen is Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Jason Reynolds is an award-winning author, and Long Way Down has even won the John Newberry Award. This award is given to the author of books considered a distinguished contribution to American children’s literature. Also, if you were in Holland, Michigan, in March of 2018, you may already be familiar with Jason Reynolds because he had an author visit at the Herrick District Library. 

Long Way Down is an interesting book. Will, the main character, is a fifteen-year-old boy who witnesses his brother, Shawn, die because of gun violence. Will then takes it into his own hands to kill his brother’s murderer because of the neighborhood’s rules: don’t cry, don’t snitch, and take revenge.  However, a ride in his apartment building’s elevator, which is the main setting for the book, and some frank talks with people from his past make Will rethink if following the neighborhood rules is something he should do. 

Another thing that makes Long Way Down interesting is that it is written in verse. Now, if you participated in the 2021 NEA Big Read Lakeshore and read along as we worked our way through An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo, you will be an old pro at reading verse. Though even if you did not join us for An American Sunrise, Reynolds writes in such a way that there are still poetic qualities along with a clear storyline and many themes, which we will discuss in the next blog.

-Written by Nancy Gately

Q&A with the Big Read Synlesa App Creators

This summer two Hope College students, Tatiana Beranand Luke Van Hout, have been working on an app for the Big Read and Little Read programs. The creators of the app were kind enough to answer a few questions about the process and what they learned along the way.

The purpose of this app is to connect readers and allow them to discuss various books and topics. It is our hope that this app will further our goal to connect Lakeshore readers and give them a chance to bond over a love of literature. We’ll be sharing more information about the Synlesa app as we kickstart our November 2022 programming!

Student Bios

Tatiana: I am from Stevensville, Mi about an hour south of Holland. I chose Hope because of the community aspect and I could see myself in their Computer Science department. I am planning to major in Computer Science and Mathematics. At Hope, I love Chapel services, hanging out with friends, and going to sporting events, especially basketball games. Some of my favorite Hope memories are late-night study sessions, hammocking in the pine grove, and worship nights at the beach. Looking to my future, I hope to continue my education and eventually work as a software developer.

Luke: I’m from Lombard, Illinois which is a suburb of Chicago. I’m a Computer Science major and a Business and Math double minor. I enjoy hanging out with my friends, going to the beach, and participating in Hope College traditions.

What excited you about this project when you first began on it?

Tatiana: I haven’t really done any front-end development coding, so I was excited to learn more about that and create something that people actually use. I was excited about a challenge.

Luke: I was excited to take an already existing project and completely overhaul it. I liked being able to have some creative freedom with the layout and design of the site.

Can you outline for us the process of creating the app?

Both: There were a lot of different steps to creating this app. We were given a rough draft of the chatroom that we manipulated and changed to fit what we wanted with Synlesa. In the beginning, there was a huge learning curve as we had to learn multiple new programs and languages for this project. Then we made some elementary fixes to be able to upload different types of data in the chatroom. After we met with Dr. VanDuinen though, it was clear we needed to do some major refactoring to add the Bookrooms. After creating this, we added different features to the user interface and separate features to the admin interface. Finally, there was just a lot of debugging and fixing different features to work as smoothly as possible. We both underestimated how big of a difference-making all these small modifications would make on the website as a whole. It was all very worth it though, and we’re both very proud of this project.

What was the hardest part of this process?

Tatiana: The hardest part for me, at least, would definitely be the learning curve at the beginning of the project. It was very overwhelming trying to figure out how all the different programs and languages interacted with each other.

Luke: The hardest part of the project for me was learning to implement our database into the website. We used a free service from Google, called Firebase, to store all of the data entered into the site. Getting the data to display correctly across the site was a big challenge in the beginning, as it wasn’t like anything I had done before.

What was the most enjoyable part of the process?

Tatiana: Definitely just seeing the project coming together. As each feature was added, it was really exciting and rewarding to see all our hard work displayed in a tangible way. It was fun to show my family and be like “I made that!” 

Luke: For me, the most enjoyable part of the project was whenever I would be working away at a bug for hours and then suddenly have a Eureka moment. Oftentimes solving that one bug would fix many of the other bugs and the techniques I learned to solve it often came in useful in other parts of the project.

Why the name Synlesa?

Both: Dr. Jipping’s technique for naming apps is to google translate the English name into different languages and see what sounds cool. This seemed like a fun technique so we translated read into different languages and finally chose Icelandic because lesa sounded pretty. We also loved the idea of students coming together to read and grow through the discussions so we added the prefix syn to the front of lesa. Synlesa symbolizes reading together or coming together to read.

How do you think the Big Read app can contribute to the program goals of fostering a culture where reading matters and readers, of all ages, learn from each other?

Both: We think Synlesa will allow readers, of all ages, to engage in discussion over books and topics that interest them. Books enable readers to make connections across different topics including current events, historic events, art, and especially other books. By sharing these connections with others, it will encourage readers to venture deeper into the book’s content and gain more from the book as well as make connections with other readers. This will not only further their enjoyment of the book itself, but also further their enjoyment of reading in general.

What books do you enjoy reading?

Tatiana: I will read pretty much anything, but I read primarily realistic fiction and romance novels.

Luke: I like reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels.

What advice do you have for users of this app?

Both: Our advice would be to be open-minded and ready to learn from other users. Everyone comes from a different background and will have their own inferences and thoughts based on that, so be ready to learn from others who differ from you. Be kind.

Any other thoughts?

Tatiana: I chose to do this project because of my love for reading and books. I have always loved reading. My favorite classes in high school were when we had Socratic Seminars and discussed the books we were reading because I enjoyed hearing how others read the same book I did. Everyone has a different background and brings something different to the discussion.

Luke: I think that this site has the potential to be an awesome place for discussion between all kinds of different people and I’m excited to check back in on it in November.

What to Know Before Reading The Odyssey

Who is Homer? 

Homer is a Greek poet born between the 12th and 8th centuries BC. Scholars know very little about Homer other than the fact that he wrote both The Iliad and The Odyssey.

What is an Epic Poem? 

Both The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems. This means that the texts are book-length stories in verse form. Epic poems typically retell a person or group’s heroic journey as they complete superhuman deeds and go on adventures. 

Where Does This Story Take Place? 

The Odyssey mostly takes place on and around the Aegean sea. The Trojan war took place in Troy, believed to be a place in modern-day Turkey, and Ithaca is a Greek Island located off the coast of Greece. 

What’s the Trojan War? 

The Trojan War was a conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans. It is not known for sure if this conflict actually happened, but in Greek Mythology the conflict began when Paris, the son of the Trojan King, ran away with Helen, the wife of the Spartan king.

The Iliad takes place 10 years into the Trojan War and follows the Greek hero Achilles, while The Odyssey begins after the Trojan War is over and Odysseus journeys home to Ithaca. 

Which Characters Show up in Circe? 

Odysseus- the main character of The Odyssey who was a favorite of the goddess Athena. This epic poem tells the story of his journey back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War 

Penelope- Odysseus’s wife in Ithaca and the mother of Telemachus known for her loyalty and faithfulness 

Telemachus- the son of Odysseus and Penelope who tries to protect his mother from various suitors in his father’s absence. After his father’s death, he arrives on Circe’s island and marries Circe 

Circe- a nymph and enchantress who turns sailors into pigs when they land on her island. Odysseus landed on her island in The Odyssey and stayed with her for a year before resuming his journey 

Telegonus- the son of Circe and Odysseus who left Aeaea, Circe’s Island, and accidentally killed his father with a poisoned lance. After his father’s death, he married Penelope, Odysseus’s widow