Matt de la Peña: Reading (and Writing) on the Wrong Side of the Tracks,By Sheilah Egan

Photo Credit: Heather Waraksa

“Books were my secret.”Matt de la Peña secured the attention of his audience of teachers and librarians at The Shenandoah University’s Children’s Literature Festival (Winchester, VA 2013) with that opening.

Knowing “your audience” is a skill that authors must master if they are to be successful in writing for specific ages or genre interests. De la Peña has honed this skill, developing his own voice and creating the appealing voices ofa variety characters. In his first book, Ball Don’t Lie(2005, Delacorte Press/Random House Children’s Books), it is easy to grasp the speed and quick (often tacit and almost instinctive) communications required on the basketball court. The structure of the sentences and paragraph transitions are fast and turn as easily as a forward can pivot while dribbling toward the net. As a B-ball player himself, de la Peña parlayed his athletic skills into a full scholarship to The University of the Pacific. His understanding of the emotions of teens and those who work with them is evident in his fluent use of slang, and the jargon of various areas, especially in that “language particular to basketball.”

Born in National City, CA, “between San Diego and Mexico” to a Mexican dad and a “white mother,” he understood that his father “did what was necessary to make it work for his family by dropping out of high school” to go to work. His mother “graduated with me on her shoulder.” When the family moved to San Diego so that his father could get a better job, de la Peña was held back in second grade. He concluded that he was “DUMB” (emphasis and air quote marks were dramatically presented at the moment he spoke the harsh word) because “I could not even make it to third grade.” Digressing from the original path of his story, he told the audience that looking back he realizes that there were three definitions of “me at that age:” Parental definition “good at art;” teacher’s definition “does C work;” “my own definition: I am dumb!”

Returning to the story of having to move to San Diego, he related how lonely he felt having “lost friends and family” and how thrilled he had been when his uncle drove up in his Bronco to visit the family. “Now, this uncle had been in and out of prison but I was so happy when he suggested that he would drive me to the beach.” At some point the uncle suggested that they “swim out to the pier.” After they had been swimming for a short time, de la Peña began to flounder and panic. He became aware that his uncle was not a strong swimmer either and “that neither of them was going to make it.” Then the lifeguard shouted through his megaphone, “JUST STAND UP.” His uncle was so embarrassed that he insisted that they leave immediately. His sense of humiliation caused him to become extremely angry and he had a confrontation in the parking lot with him using a sledgehammer to smash the windows out of the car of a driver “who had annoyed him.” This was only one of many examples that de la Peña observed that proved to him that “…real, working class men do not talk about ‘things.'” He looked into the audience and asked, “How do they learn differently? How did I come to literature?”

“Well, that is my back story. Something that I keep in mind about each and every child that I meet – they have a back story, too.” He also kept it in mind as he worked in a group home (“sort of a half-way house”) after college – always aware that each of the young men he encountered had their own “back story.” That work provided him with a first hand opportunity to further develop his observation skills and to build on his storehouse of human nature in action.

“I had liked books growing up but I was not really exposed to them. Yes, I am a reluctant reader who became an author.” Sports had provided the arena for de la Peña to “convince other people that he was good” and to feel “good” about himself. After moving to a more affluent neighborhood where “all the kid’s parents had gone to college,” his thinking began to change. “I just needed to understand that I could study whatever I wanted to and get to meet girls.” Everything revolved around basketball since his goal was to earn a basketball scholarship to attend college. Every decision was based on “whether or not it would help me get a scholarship. I avoided drugs, drinking, etc. because that would spoil my chances in sports.” During this time his dad was still working at the San Diego Zoo and “was settled into his blue collar perspective. It was hard for him to process the whole thing.” de la Peña felt that his dad suffered “some resentment because his own youth was gone and we had little communication about feelings.” When his dad said, “We think you are a success.” he actually wondered why his father thought that.

After going to college, he began to feel that having grown up poor was a real advantage for him. It gave him the “freedom” to go to college to learn, “not to impress others.” He also began to consider his future and that “Basketball may not be the complete answer. So what else do I like to do?”

Play guitar – “way too shy for a career;”

Writing – “I do love the spoken word, poems, in fact, I loved the sound of words.”

So, he wrote a poem about a girl in his Spanish class. Then he “imagined the story of how she would read his poem at McDonalds, creating a vision of her reaction while ‘posting up.'” (Posting up = Leaning against the wall watching the classroom door.) After the bell rang, she came out of the classroom and walked in the other direction and he was shocked. Much later on she contacted him through Face Book and told him that she had actually kept the poem. He thought it was awful and said that he could not ever have become a writer if he had not become a reader first.

His high school junior year English teacher was a great influence on de la Peña. The pivotal moment, “the powerful moment in my life,” was at the end of the school year when she did not give him a final exam. She handed him a blank piece of paper and said, “Just write. And just so you know you have an A on the final.” “Miss Blizzard told me I could write and that is why I am an author. She told me that I was a great writer and the power of suggestion was tremendous.” De la Peña is obviously aware of the importance of teachers and their influence on students’ lives. He did not stint with his praise of teachers and his “thanks” were heartfelt.

During his sophomore year in college another teacher shepherded him along his writing path – her contribution? She handed him The Color Purple and simply said, “Read this and come talk to me.” He wondered why she had given him that book and was very uncomfortable for the first fifty pages or so as he began to get to know about the author and starting to figure out the style and personality of the writing. “Oh, I could tell you about my pride in knocking it out in just two days; but what I have to say is that I was actually on the verge of tears at the end – Oh, yeah that Macho thing – no real tears but I was deeply moved and it changed my life. Books became the secret place to face feelings.” Books became his secret life of thinking about the bigger concepts and emotions of life. Sports were important to him but there was never any discussion of feelings or books or “anything like that.”

While he was in college, working on his double major in English and Psychology, teachers submitted his work to MFA programs on his behalf. Thus de la Peña returned to San Diego to earn his masters in creative writing from San Diego State University. Now that he was closer to his family geographically, it was easier to visit and share meals with them a “couple times a month.” He spoke about the guilt he felt at the time because he was in college having one life while his family was “going on with real life.” Because of a variety of difficulties his dad drifted into drugs and his sister suffered from anorexia. He felt “like a sell-out” and “really needed my support group to prevent me from dropping out of college.” Again, he credited teachers and the support he received at school for helping him to deal with the need to finish college and yet be supportive of his family. Even though they were able to be together more often, his dad was withdrawn and obviously suffering. De la Peña gave him a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel GarcíaMárquez) and left it for him to read. It took a few months for his father to read the book but he did say it was “good.” Books became the “connection” for de la Peña and his father. His dad confided, “I was thinking that I could read the books you read.” The library became his dad’s favorite place and he went on to get his GED. After finishing, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man(James Joyce)he told his son, “This is why we read Joyce.” The pleasure of this exchange shone on de la Peña’s face – the pride and awareness of the real communication between two grown men.

“Teen readers are loyal fans,” de la Peña said as he continued his presentation, describing a young woman who campaigned for a reading program that included her favorite book, de la Peña’s We Were Here (2009, Delacorte Press/Random House Children’s Books). Her protests and community support got the program reinstated. That is what is powerful about books. It is about the actions and reactions that books can inspire and the strength that can be born of “words on a page that change lives.”

Many of de la Peña’s books and other writings have the flavor of his own quest for “the sound of words.” In his books, themes and currents abound as he addresses the divide between the poor and the affluent and the “value of a person.” His own life experiences color his writing, as does his keen observation of people in all walks of life. Remember that beach trip with his uncle? The scene in The Living(2013,Delacorte Press/Random House Children’s Books)when the ocean liner is sinking is terrifyingly detailed and realistic. The subsequent near-drowning scenes could only have been written with first hand knowledge and the skill to fashion the words into sentences that have the reader holding his/her breath. Questioning the worth of each person through different character perspectives, de la Peña presents personalities that capture the whole persona – not all bad and equally not all good. His work over the last ten years has included short stories and novels; now he has expanded into picture books (“editors are always challenging their authors”) and is learning about the economy of language necessary to create literature in thirty-two pages.

As one visits his website, it is clear that de la Peña’s career is well on its way in the YA and children’s literature world. Check out the number of awards, prizes, and honors that he has already received. All of us need a future filled with thoughtful, intelligent people who know how to talk about “feelings and things.” Matt de la Peña’s influence on generations of readers will help make that a real possibility.

Books by Matt de la Peña

Compiled by Peg Glisson

Balls Don’t Lie

Sticky has been in and out of foster homes all of his life and has seen things that would break most people–basketball is just about the only thing that hasn’t abandoned or betrayed him. Even though he’s the only white kid at the Lincoln Rec gym in LA, where ballers play on one court and the homeless sleep on the other, it’s “Sticky’s home. It’s his hiding place. It’s his church.” Sticky may be one of the lucky few who has a chance to make it big in basketball, if he can overcome crushing poverty and his painful past. His battle to survive is heartbreakingly and artistically portrayed through a dreamlike narrative, accented with rhythmic pacing and flowing street dialogue, that wanders through scenes from Sticky’s past and present life. Readers may find the nonlinear narrative challenging at first, but the high-interest topic and familiar slang will allow them to quickly settle in. de la Pena doesn’t shy away from the gritty harshness of urban poverty, but neither does he glorify or vilify the reality that Sticky faces. The characters live and breathe, and Sticky in particular has depth, acting just as a traumatized person might, displaying obsessive-compulsive tendencies, shying away from even his girlfriend’s touch, sometimes lashing out violently. Readers aren’t asked to judge Sticky but to know him and see both his flaws and beauty. The book’s language, its pacing and narrative structure, and the depth of emotions explored make it uniquely well crafted in the realm of urban basketball tales. For readers who are ready to take on the darker complexities of life, or who–like Sticky–live to play ball, this is a must-read. Review Code: R — Recommended. (2005, Delacorte, Grades 9-12, $16.95 and $18.99.

REVIEWER: Maggie Hommel (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).

ISBN: 9780385732321

Curse of the Ancients

In book four of the “Infinity Ring” series, Matt De La Pena takes readers on a journey into the early days of the Mayan civilization and then into the future to witness the destruction brought upon by the Spaniards. Sera, Dak, and Riq must learn how to befriend the Mayans during two different centuries. The SQuare (SQ) gives them a clue making them realize that there is something here for them to fix. When they figure out that a fake codex has been passed down through the centuries, it is their job as Hystorians to replace the fake codex with the real one. The SQ has distorted the history of the Ancient Mayan civilization leaving the characters challenged to save the Mayans and themselves before it is too late. During this time they see the devastation and the effects of one culture trying to assert its customs on another and the character most impacted by this is Sera. Sera is eleven years old and she can only handle so much horror and it is emotionally written which will definitely stir something within the reader. The only downside of this book is that readers will have difficulty following the story if they have not read the first three in this series. Like all the “Inifnity Ring” books, readers receive the Hystorian’s Guide to unlock another adventure online. 2013, Scholastic, Ages 8 up, $12.99.

REVIEWER: Maggie Hommel (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).

ISBN: 9780385732321Denise Hartzler (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780545386999

I Will Save You

Fed up with therapy and rules, Kidd runs away from the group home where he has been staying since his mother’s death. He seeks out Mr. Red, a middle-aged ex-surfer who tried to set him up in an offsite job while he was in the group home, but whose offer was rejected because the therapists believed that Kidd was not yet ready. Mr. Red isn’t overly fond of rules, so he hires Kidd to do maintenance at his seaside campground anyway. There Kidd meets Olivia, a beautiful girl with a port-wine stain covering half her face, and she and he develop a relationship. Their idyll is disturbed, however, by the appearance of Devon, a destructive, hate-filled friend from the group home who follows Kidd and begins to threaten those who are helping him regain a sense of what it might be like to live a normal life. After a shocking opener, Kidd gradually reveals the details of his traumatic past, narrating from what he believes is a solitary-confinement prison cell but which turns out to be a hospital bed where he lies comatose. He displays a touching vulnerability that will be just as appealing to readers as it is to Mr. Red and Olivia, whose own pain binds them to Kidd’s recovery; Mr. Red in particular is a portrait in loss, someone who needs to help Kidd as much as Kidd needs his help. Ultimately, their loyalty to a troubled young man, and Kidd’s poignant attempts to overcome the pain that has broken him in two (and not just metaphorically, as the book cleverly reveals), will speak to readers’ hearts. Review Code: R — Recommended. 2010, Delacorte, Grades 7-10, $19.99.

REVIEWER: Karen Coats (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books).

ISBN: 9780385738279

The Living

Shy Espinoza takes a summer job working on a cruise ship hoping to earn some extra cash to help his family and find a way out of his impoverished life. On board, he meets a rag-tag gang of friends, including the girl who may be his soul mate, Carmen. One stormy night, the world is forever changed when THE big one hits California and a tsunami leaves him stranded at sea with the spoiled Addie. The story then enters into act two–a survival story. After days at sea and near death, they are rescued by the mysterious Shoeshine who takes them to a research island that hides secrets. What happens next will leave readers waiting for the next installment. de la Pena manages to pack a lot into The Living: there is an examination of social class; a pandemic (already in existence and effecting Shy’s life); the adventure saga at sea; and a conspiracy plot all of which take the reader on a whiplash adventure. In less deft hands, the pieces could fall apart, but de la Pena manages to make it all work. There are a few convenient coincidences that come into play but in the end, readers just will not care because this is an excellent, enthralling ride. Shy is an interesting main character with an authentic voice, and as events unfold, he is forced to examine who he is, how he views others, and how he responds to the world around him. A great read for those looking for adventure and survival stories with some good character growth and introspection for others, this should have a wide and satisfied readership. There is some mild language, but this title is highly recommended for all libraries. VOYA CODES: 4Q 5P S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Every YA (who reads) was dying to read it yesterday; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2013, Delacorte/Random House, Ages 15 to 18, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Karen Jensen (VOYA, December 2013 (Vol. 36, No. 5)).

ISBN: 9780385741200

Mexican White Boy

Regardless of their gender, adolescent readers will thoroughly enjoy this book. The author is a phenomenal storyteller. The characters are dynamic and authentic, so readers can easily relate to them. The dialogue enables readers to empathize with the struggles of the main character, Danny. Danny yearns to be accepted by both of the two worlds he is caught between, that of his white mother and classmates and that of his Mexican father. Out of this longing, Danny hopefully reunites with his father while on summer break from the private boarding school where he does not fit in. Instead of opting to be with his mother and her new boyfriend in San Francisco, Danny heads to San Diego, National City, with his father’s relatives. Through his experiences with his father’s side of the family, Danny comes to terms with the reasons behind his father’s absence. Danny’s talent as a great baseball pitcher is his salvation as he gains strength, confidence, and self-awareness. This book is a compelling read, and adolescents will not be disappointed with the themes of acceptance, friendship and multiculturalism. 2008, Delacorte Press, Ages 14 to 18, $15.99.

REVIEWER: Rosa Roberts (Children’s Literature).

A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis

Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Joe Louis’s second encounter with German boxer Max Schmeling frames this account of Louis’s life and rise to boxing fame. As a child, Joe had a stammer and was ridiculed. He found refuge in the ring, where defeat made him work even harder. A hero to African Americans, who “danced his every triumph in the streets,” Joe’s loss in his first fight with Schmeling left “Harlem streets struck silent.” Before the second meeting between Louis and Schmeling, “Word leaked that the Nazis / were filling concentration camps in Europe … It was now more than just blacks who needed a hero / it was all of America, and color was set aside.” Matt de la Pena’s narrative dances with the grace of a boxer in a ring as it builds to Louis’s victory over Schmeling. Kadir Nelson’s beautifully composed oil on wood paintings make a dramatic, sometimes haunting accompaniment to the words, reflecting the power and dignity of Louis as an athlete and a human being. CCBC Category: Historical People, Places, and Events. 2011, Dial, 40 pages, $17.99. Ages 8-12.

REVIEWER: CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices, 2012).

ISBN: 9780803731677

We Were Here

When Miguel, a high school student from Stockton, Calif. – “where every other person you meet has missing teeth or is leaning against a liquor store wall begging for change to buy beer” – commits an undisclosed crime, he is sentenced to a year in juvenile hall. Despite the efforts of his counselor (who constantly calls him “bro”), a despondent Miguel suffers alone at the group home, reading and scribbling in his journal; his entries provide the novel’s narrative. When Mong, a violent fellow resident, plans an escape to Mexico, Miguel and his roommate, Rondell, join him on a tumultuous journey through Southern California and slowly become friends, as Miguel struggles to come to terms with the events that have brought him to this point (“Nah, man, there ain’t no such thing as peace no more. That shit’s dead and buried”). Miguel’s raw yet reflective journal entries give Peña’s (Mexican WhiteBoy) coming-of-age story an immersive authenticity and forceful voice. The suspense surrounding the boys’ survival and the mystery of Miguel’s crime result in a furiously paced and gripping novel. 2009, Delacorte Press/Random House, Ages 14 – up, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly).

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