MATT DE LA PEÑA

The New York Times best selling author Matt de la Peña once wrote “great “children’s” books are simply great books, imaginative and intelligible to young readers, replete with soulful wisdom that spills into what we grownups call philosophy.”  Matt de la Peña is the author of seven young adult novels and five picture books. His picture book Last Stop on Market Street earned him the Newbery Medal, and his highly acclaimed picture book titled Love examines love in its many forms. Matt teaches creative writing at San Diego State University, and his books draw on his Latino background and being as a collegiate basketball player. Matt openly speaks about growing up as a non-reader, how books changed his lives, and how his current work aims to increase book culture.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness
Matt, thanks so much for joining us today. 

 

Matt De La Peña

Thanks, so much for having me. 

 

Molly Ness

I know you're taking time out of your busy schedule, both as an author and now as a professor or adjunct instructor- teaching people who want to do things like you, teaching classes in creative writing as well as children's literature. So, our listeners will be familiar with the previous podcast from Jason Reynolds who talks about his role as a children's book author and a middle-grade author and a young adult author, what he does with regard to increasing book access. So Matt, obviously you've been in schools, you know the situation with regard to book access. So, I'm interested to hear about the work that you're doing to both spread a culture of reading as well as increased book access for kids all over the country living in book deserts.

Matt De La Peña
Well, I think one of the most important things I can offer is my own story. You know, being in a, in a situation as a young kid where I didn't read, and I didn't have access. So, one of the reasons was growing up in a-a more, you know, struggling neighborhood. But the other one is I was that classic boy from a machismo neighborhood who thought that I should be doing things not reading about them. So, you know, part of it was circumstantial, but the other part of it was choice. And I think one of the things I can offer when I go to a school is, I could talk about my own evolution in terms of literacy and discovering the power of books. Hopefully, I can sort of nudge a couple of young people who are growing up similar to the way I did to like give books a chance earlier. I think one of the most important things that we as avid readers have is we have experience in being moved by a book or, or being, having the experience of reading something that shows us a part of the world we had no idea about. And if you do grow up it, this is why book access is so important to me. If you grow up in a place that's insular, you know, because of poverty, because of lack of opportunities and books, literature, you don't know the different possibilities which lie in front of you. And if you don't know them, then how are you ever going to break out and do something new?

Molly Ness
It must be really welcoming and sort of affirming for kids when you go into schools and say, hey, I wasn't a reader too and now here I am however many years down the road. My- my assumption is that so many kids are hearing adults come in and say, you should be a reader. You have to read. But for you, who clearly is living a life rich and reading and writing to say, I wasn't a reader and I was like you, but here's what I can do to nudge you forward as a reader. So, what was it that made you move forward as a reader growing up as somebody who wasn't necessarily entrenched in book culture?

Matt De La Peña
Well, I think most authors I know they come to writing through reading. So, you know, they're- they're readers at an early age and they're- they're moved by books and they want to do it too. I'm the opposite. I came to reading through writing. So, what a lot of people didn't know about me is that I was secretly doing a lot of like exploration with poetry. Uh, I always say that I was like a spoken word poet who spoke my poems to no one. Um, because I was just quiet about it. It was, it was almost like my own little secret. Um, but you can only take it so far if you're just writing in a vacuum. Uh, I truly believe you can never even be a good writer until you're first a great reader. And I think for me, um, I started to discover people that were telling amazing stories and, and it started making me want to like up my game and try to try to hit that level. So, the first book that really got me was The House on Mango Street. And I, I do think a- reluctant readers are also incredibly loyal readers. So yes, I don't read that much. Um, I'm not exploring a bunch of books. However, if there is one book or even one author that I adore, I'm going to probably read that book over and over and over. So that's what I did with The House on Mango Street. And then, you know, you're like, well, I trust Sandra Cisneros, let me check out some of her other stuff. So that's sort of, um, that was my first moment. It was in middle school when I discovered The House on Mango Street. And then of course I had to, you know, just I had to branch out. And unfortunately, that didn't happen for me until I was in college and it was African- American female authors who were my probably the most, and they played the most important role in my discovery of literature as a whole. So, um, I was introduced to The Color Purple and then, you know, you start to read everything by Alice Walker cause you think that book is so good and you, you discover that you know, we as, as experienced readers, we go on these little trails, right? Uh, literary trails. And so, mine was, oh, I heard, I heard that Alice Walker really likes Their Eyes Were Watching God. So, then I'm going to read that and whoa, that book was amazing. So now I'm going to read everything by Zora Neale Hurston. And, uh, in that conversation I discovered Tony Morrison and a poet named Ruth Foreman. Um, so you know, you, I, I traveled this little path and at some point, I was introduced to Latino literature and that's what made me think it was accessible for me to actually maybe tell my own story in a way that could be, you know, it could, I could get it out there, I could be published.

Molly Ness
So I think another big thing that authors do with regard to book access is the, they create books that are reflective of children today, their realities, their identities, their challenges. For those listeners out there who are not yet familiar with your writing, how is that work that you are putting out into the universe? How are your books adding to, um, to, to the readers that may not see themselves in some of the books that are currently in schools?

Matt De La Peña
Yeah. So, there are different, I believe there are different motivators for, for different authors. So, some writers are super savvy about the market and they say, oh, I see that there's a section of- of the market that’s untapped. I'm going to go there. And then there are writers like me who are more just writing the stories that they would want to read when they were young and actually that they would want to read now. Uh, so I am that kind of author. Um, I tell stories about kids that the way I describe it as kids growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Why? Because I was that kid. I remember when I was young, I used to just watch people in the neighborhood. I used to watch my uncles and I used to think, gosh, I wish people could see how funny my uncle is or, or how sad this story is. I just wanted people to know what I was seeing. So, when you become an author, you get to tell stories and if somebody is going to read your book, they get to see what you see. And, and, and I love that. So, I think, um, my first instinct was just to tell stories that that were close to home. Um, I was kind of exploring where I grew up, who, who my family was, what- what is an alternative family look like. And then as I got older and I became a more experienced writer, then I started meeting kids on the road and I was sort of inspired by some of their stories. Um, and they, I started to like listen to kids, listen to young people and I would sort of take that as an inspiration and it would lead me back to a moment that I had experienced and I could explore it with more depth so that that's, that's one way I approach books. I'll actually tell you a quick little story that kind of changed my life. I had written, um, a bunch of short stories in graduate school and they were exploring, you know, the mixed-race identity, which is something that back then nobody was really doing. And I was doing it cause I was confused. I was just exploring like as a kid like I didn't know what I was. And, but then I said, you know what? I'm going to try to write a novel. Who am I going to feature in this book? And around that time, I was taking the bus everywhere in Los Angeles. And I remember one time I was approaching the bus stop and I saw this boy and he was sitting on the back part of a bus stop bench waiting for the bus and it was in Venice Beach. And, and he was like a kind of a scrubby looking kid, you know, super light, like probably half Mexican so I think it hit home that way. But he was holding a basketball hood up headphones on. And I noticed that every car that was a fancy car, they would pull up to the stoplight and nobody would look at this kid. And I remember having this epiphany from a writing point of view. I said, gosh, you know what, if anybody reads any of my books, they're going to look at this kid for 300 pages because I want him to be seen. Um, and I think that was the moment where I said, oh, now I know what I want to shed light on. Um, and it hit home for me, but it, uh, it was also the first time where I wasn't just thinking about my own experience.

Molly Ness
As somebody who spends a lot of time with teachers and with kids and in schools, what are you seeing with regard to reading and book culture and book access? What are you noticing?

Matt De La Peña
Well, the one thing I will say is that, um, I'm usually going into schools where there's pretty big advocacy because you know, they've taken the time to invite me in and plan this and raise funds. So, I'm seeing, I believe the cream of the crop in terms of educators. So, there's usually at least a couple teachers who are spearheading this or you know, a librarian. And in certain cases, I get to meet really, really motivated principals. So, I'm seeing work being put in, in the, in this category, you know, in this field. However, I will say that sometimes I do notice that when I'm brought in, it's an attempt to sort of engage male readers. Because here's an example of somebody who was like you. Um, I just wish that we would hit kids where they live with reading, and instead of trying to sort of like tell them who they are as readers or what's being taught in classes is so often material that doesn't really connect with them in any way. So, when I do see a curriculum that has a Jason Reynold's book that has YA, and middle grade, I see more engaged readers. When I see like class lists with, you know, The Canon, I see readers who are just like, oh, this isn't for me. You know, like I can't connect. I'm just trying to get a grade. I love it when I go into a school where, you know, I just think choice, choice reading is such a big deal. And when I see, um, students reading what they want to read. One of my favorite stories, cause I think we, we sort of typecast kids about what they're interested in. I went to, um, a juvenile detention center and you know, I was brought in because they were like, oh, well you write books that with at risk kids and you've actually, I've even explored the juvenile detention system. So, I go in there and I asked the kids, 12 residents like, what are your favorite books? And I'll never forget, these were all boys, all teenagers. And they were like, oh, we just read this Gail Foreman book. It's so good. And they were raving about this romance novel by Gail Foreman, which is actually really literary too, but I was just so that made me so happy. It was like they found what interested them as opposed to what we think that they would like. You know what I mean? Like we as adults, as people outside of this system. So, um, yeah, it's fascinating what you see on the road. I feel like I am so lucky to get a peek into different pockets of our country.

Molly Ness
And the, um, the, the boys that you were seeing reading that book, my hunch is that they were reading it because they wanted to- that book was a way for them to experience things that they could not experience in the realities of their everyday life. They don't want to read the books that reflect their situation or their backgrounds because they're living that life. Maybe they were just turning to that book because they're trying to, to live a life that they would have been outside of juvenile justice.

Matt De La Peña
Well, not only that, I think they do like to read about their experience on the inside, but not only about their experience, you know what I mean? So, like this was an opportunity to… They use those books as a window and especially it was like a life book that they were referring to. It was a life that they had no clue about. Um, I remember when I was playing college basketball, uh, some of my teammates, they would have viewing parties for like 90210. Oh, and these, these kids were all from super rough neighborhoods like urban and, and they were so fascinating. It wasn't 90210- it was like the offshoot of that. I can't remember what it was called, but it fascinated me that they loved that story. And it was, again, it was a window.

Molly Ness
So let me pick up on something you said that I found so interesting. When you say that you wish that we could hit kids where they were with regard to their reading identity. Say more about that. How does that look and how does that translate to what happens in our schools as well as your writing?

Matt De La Peña
Okay, so I'll take myself as an example. As a young kid, I was super into basketball. I was also, you know, I'll be honest like I was kind of one of these kids that was very, very sad and didn't understand what that meant. Um, I didn't know where that came from. And, and of course, growing up in the neighborhood, I grew up in- sadness, that doesn't make sense and you could never talk about it. Um, so what was I drawn to? Well, one of the books that I, uh, I was excited about was a biography about Larry Bird. So, you know, it was just simple sports stuff. I also liked Basketball Digest, which was, you know, a weekly magazine about basketball, pro-basketball. But I was also really moved by stories that explored sadness because I just, it, it hit home. There's nothing I could ever communicate. I didn't even have access to it myself. I didn't understand it. So that's what I was drawn to. Now as a writer, I write the stories that I would have been drawn to as a kid. And there are so many kids like me. I'm so not unique. Um, so many kids have similar equations in terms of what they're looking for as readers. I think I had this incredible experience one time. Um, where I went to a school and I'll never forget this librarian's idea cause I think it was so smart. She said, look, you're going to do two talks. One of them is going to be for the general population of the high school, but the second one is going to be only for the athletes on campus. So, men's, women's, every sport. But I want you to be their author. First of all, that was super smart because they were taking ownership over a literary event even though they were so into sports. It was like a high achieving sport school. On the way to this talk. I fell in line walking with, uh, the head basketball coach and he said, hey Matt, I really want you to meet this kid, Lee on my team. He's the best player. He's 6’6”, he's a sophomore. He's- he's already the best player. He's going to get a division one scholarship for sure. He goes, but Ball Don’t Lie is his favorite book. He's read it like five times. And I remember I was still very new, and I was so excited to talk to this kid because I'd never met somebody who had read the book that many times by choice. Uh, you know, your editor of course has to. So, I met the kid and I said, why Ball Don't Lie, why is that your favorite book? And he said, Oh, I'll read anything about basketball. Basketball is my life. So, I was like, oh, I heard an echo of my childhood there. But then I just on a whim, I said, what are your favorite parts of the book? I'm just curious. And he proceeded to tell me about five different scenes in the book. I know this is like a 10-minute conversation. None of those scenes had anything to do with basketball. They were all like- kind of sad moments of commentary about the city of Los Angeles or, or a mental state that was exploring melancholy. And I looked at this kid and I thought, nobody who, who sees this kid or who was friends with this kid knows that he’s sad and uh, he found a place to explore it in, in literature. That's why he loves the book. It isn't even the basketball; the basketball has his entry point. But once he got there, he found the same things that the AP students find. Their bits about the human condition. And I think that was really instructive for me as a writer.

Molly Ness
And to follow up with that a vignette, did you remark on that to the student? Did you just, how does- how did you handle it?

Matt De La Peña
I didn't at all because I was such a new writer. I had no idea what I was doing. I just listened to them, which by the way, I think that often is probably the best route to go. But I didn't, I don't think I, I made the connection until years later reflecting on the story because now I'd, I'd seen it a few more times and I started to understand what was going on and I kind of connected it back to me as a kid. When I was a new author, I was fairly young, and I don't think I was capable of making that connection yet. I was still writing purely on instinct. Um, and for me, writing at that point was so visceral. I wasn't super conscious of what I was doing.

Molly Ness
As we talk about book access and just the data around book deserts, um, my belief is that it's not enough to just give kids books. We have to do much more to sustain and support and, in many places, create book culture and, um, help kids see themselves as readers which it sounds like you're doing so much of, as you talk to young readers and as you go into schools. I'm wondering if you might be able to tell us or, or think through what we can do to create book culture? What would that look like and how can schools and teachers help in that process?

Matt De La Peña
Okay, so this is exciting because, um, a couple of things. So, I'll- I'll mention one thing I'm doing and then I'm going to mention something that I've seen on the road. For me, something I'm just starting, which is super exciting to me is, so I just moved back to San Diego and I'm living in a part of San Diego that I never knew about when I was a kid cause it's a little bit more affluent. Um, and my kids are growing up in this setting- in a place that I don't even really understand yet because we've only been there three months. But now that I'm an author and I'm in a certain, you know, position now, um, I'm going to take my daughter who's five and growing up in this more affluent neighborhood, I'm going to take her every week back to my old elementary school, and we're going to have writing workshops after school once a week. This is great for my daughter because she's going to see the real world. She's going to see kids who are growing up different from her. But it's great for those kids because I'm coming in, I'm one of them, but I'm there to talk about writing. And even though that's our focus, we're really talking about life. So, we're talking about life. It's gonna, it's going to be real stuff, but it's centered around literacy. So, we're going to be reading and we're going to be writing, and that's our focus, right? So, it's, it's sort of like real-life stuff. It's, you know, there's this idea of like writing for school versus writing for real. So, we're going to be writing for real. This isn't something for school. You're not going to pin it on the wall next to the principal's office. This is just like writing your truth, but it's centered around literacy. So that's, that's one thing. Another thing I saw on the road one time in San Antonio that really moved me, um, and I think is a- is an answer. It was, it was done by a principal. He was a Mexican principal in a predominantly Mexican school and every Thursday he had book club and it was with a big group of boys in a junior high. And the focus was, we're going to talk about one book on this Thursday. Now I think there were like 60 kids in there. They also got pizza. They also talked about real life. They probably talked about the book only, maybe about 20% of the time I was there. It was my book too. Um, it was Mexican Whiteboy that I was invited in because of course, they were reading my book. But what I noticed is that he was building a culture of reading, even though reading was only 20% of the conversation because the meeting sort of like it, the hook that held everything up the skeleton was literacy was a book. But they used the book as a tool to talk about their lives, to talk about growing up boy, growing up in a machismo community. And so like to me that was monumental because yes, some of the kids hadn't read the book, you know, or you could tell some of them that are in two chapters and they were really there to eat pizza and hang out with their friends. But you know what, it doesn't matter. They were there under the frame of a book club and the principal, you know, the person with the most power in the school was leading that conversation about a book. So, to me, that was a huge deal. I think sometimes we- we, I don't know- we, uh, authors, we take ourselves a little bit too serious. We think our, our role is more important than it really is. The truth is all we are doing is producing tools for people to use for real life. Um, I'm not writing a book that's going to change somebody's life. I'm writing a book that might be used as a kid, as a tool to change his or her own life. And so, I think that's important to remember.

Molly Ness
So to follow that up, what are you drawn to now and what stories do you still want to put out there?

Matt De La Peña
So I think that winning the Newbury changed my life in one very important way. I feel like my publisher allows me to write the stories I really want to write, even if they're not commercial. So, um, again, I will tell you the truth. Like I'm very drawn to this concept of male sadness, um, and machismo neighborhoods. Um, and so like I, I still am always writing about that. I'm very, very much drawn to class. Uh, I'm often referred to somebody as, uh, as like somebody who writes about race. But if people really studied my work, they would see that I'm really writing about class. Um, of course, the mixed-race identity is always there. But classes like my- I don’t know, it's kind of my passion as a writer. So, there's that. Um, and then melancholy is always going to be something I explore. I had this conversation with Katie Camilla once, um, who's I think like one of the voices of our generation for children's books. And, um, I'm really moved by her, her work. And I told her, I have this theory. I think that everybody loves her, and they think they love her for the grand storytelling, like in something like The Tales of Despereaux. But I, I told her, my theory is that what they're really connecting with unconsciously is this layer of sadness that's bubbling under her stories. And she was like, wow, that's interesting. You should write an essay about that. And I was like, I don't have time, but I just wanted to tell you that. Um, and it kind of- your question makes me think of this, this idea that I have as a writer. I think obviously we should never go into a book with a message, you know, that's bad writing. Um, you should write an essay if you're going to do that. But we should always go into a book with a point of view. And what you're really asking is like, what's my point of view? And so, I'll go back to my reading interests. As a kid, I'm fascinated by the body of a male who's who, strong physically but powerless politically. So, I'm always going to write about that. I'm always going to write about melancholy in working-class neighborhoods because I think it's important to explore and also, it's something that we're not talking about enough. And then I do like sports, so I want to be able to write about that sometimes. And then last but not least, I think- writing for children can be an- activism and so what things do I want to explore? So, in Last Stop on Market Street, I wanted to explore, um, a tougher neighborhood or what does it look like and how can you find beautiful in a tougher neighborhood? Um, Christian and I have a new book coming out and it's about a young boy who's riding the subway in New York City. He's going to visit an incarcerated parent. And uh, this is something I want to write about because America has this massive problem with mass incarceration, and I want to explore it. Of course, the book, this is my kind of new approach where that issue isn't the focus of the book, but again, it sort of hovers over the whole thing. So those are a couple of the things that I really want to do. And then last but not least, I think I've just sort of started to understand that I need to probably do more with some of my male psyche, uh, explorations. Like maybe you can't just reflect what you see or report on what you see in- in tough neighborhoods, in terms of male behavior. Maybe you have to do something with it. So that's like my new goal is to try to kind of, not just report on what I see, but maybe do something with it, like arc it somewhat or, or there's this great line, I think it was by Picasso, but he said, “do not paint what you see paint, what will be seen.” And I think as a writer I can do a little bit more of that. Um, when it comes to like the male psyche.

Molly Ness
Well, and for our listeners out there who haven't come across both your middle-grade books and your fabulous picture books, Love is still way up there for me. 

 

Matt De La Peña

Oh, thank you.

 

Molly Ness

I know when Love came out, there was a little bit of resistance in that, um, it was a little edgy and some of the illustrations were depicted, um, things that, situations that many children are living in today that um, not everybody was quite ready to see on a double-page spread. And so, I'll leave it at that so they can go check it out themselves. Um, I just have such respect for you guys continuing to say these are the realities that kids need to see reflected on the pages and we're not going to shy away from some of those topics, which are, are tough to talk about and tough to live through.

Matt De La Peña
Yeah, thanks. And it's, it's, to me, it's a beautiful thing to explore.

Molly Ness
So, um, as we wrap up on time, I wanted to ask you the question that I love to ask everybody. I know that the book, um, the Sandra Cisneros book, um, House on Mango Street was really profoundly a part of your life and your reading identity. Um, I'm, I'm going to ask you in the spirit of building reading culture and talking about our reading identities, a book that has had a powerful impact on you, either from your past or present that continues to resonate with you. Obviously, as a lifelong reader, it's nearly impossible to narrow it down to one. And chances are if I asked you the same question tomorrow, you might have a different answer, but what's that book for you that you keep, um, just keeps impacting you in some way or it keeps returning to you.

Matt De La Peña
Okay. Can I cheat and, cause I, I love picture books, but I have to obviously do a novel too. Is that, can I cheat?

Molly Ness
Yeah, I, you know, when it comes to books, I'm- I'm pretty much okay with cheating.

Matt De La Peña
Okay. So, a picture book that I think I continually come back to in terms of its bravery is Jackie Woodson's Each Kindness. And the reason why is because I've never seen another picture book that ends on a missed opportunity and it ends on sadness. I think that's so brave. And I, and I also just think it’s beautiful writing and a very important topic. So, Each Kindness by Jackie Woodson is one and she's one of my favorite people too.

Molly Ness
Yeah. She is just on fire lately.

Matt De La Peña
She's on. Yeah. She needs to calm down. She needs to calm. Um, yeah, she's brilliant. Uh, okay. So then in terms of a novel, the first thing that came to mind when you were asking the question was Suttree, by uh Cormac McCarthy, which is a book that I read continually. Um, every time I sit down to write, I'll read a few paragraphs because I just think that book is just amazing. And I think I only understand 85% of it, which I like that I would rather feel like I'm grasping to catch up as a reader than to feel too comfortable. But I decided not to use that. You see, that was another cheat. I got to mention it but not use it. 

 

Molly Ness

You’re sneaky.

 

Matt De La Peña

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. I think the reason I'm going to, I'm going to go with that book is it taught me like I was writing nothing but YA. And it taught me that in middle-grade you can do just as most just as much with voice as you can in YA or adult. So, I think that was like a, like a, a seminar in how to write a distinct voice and a distinct character. So, and, and I love all his work, but Bud, Not Buddy for, for me is truly special.

Molly Ness
Well, I love this question because so much so many of us ask each other what's your favorite book? And um, your favorite book may not be the same book as a book that really resonates with you. 

 

Matt De La Peña

I couldn't agree more. I couldn't agree more.

 

Molly Ness

I just, I just think it's such an interesting question and it's always one that, um, as we approach the holiday season, I will be sure to ask all of the people at my holiday table, um, and I think is just transformative in bringing out people's reading identities and their reading culture, um, that we're all trying to build.

Matt De La Peña
Yeah, absolutely.

Molly Ness
Well, thank you so much for your time. Um, readers will be able to, listeners will be able to find out more about your body of work, which is so diverse picture book all the way up to middle-grade book through the website, endbookdeserts.com. We’re so appreciative of both your effort to build reading culture, the works that you're putting into the hands of kids, and the time that you've taken today to talk with us.

Matt De La Peña
Well, yeah. And thank you for doing what you're doing. I think this is such an important topic and it's really cool that you're spending your time, you know, thinking about kids who don't have access.

Molly Ness
It would be a different world if all of us, um, really thought about the kids who don't have access. Not just because of their socioeconomic, um, situations, but also access because of whatever family situations and their identities and their backgrounds. Um, so thank you so much for, um, being a part of that conversation.

 

Matt De La Peña
Yeah, thanks. I, I've enjoyed the ones I've listened to too, so it was fun to be a part of it.