Growing up in a border community
I grew up in a border community in San Diego called National City. And when I was young, I used to think that this was detrimental to my possibilities in life.
And as a person looking back, it's probably the thing I'm most proud of. I learned so much in this community. It was predominantly Mexican-American, but my family was mixed. My Dad was Mexican, my Mom was White, but they were both born in National City so they were both native to this community. And it was just good people and good families. And I think when I look back that's what I value most in my own community now, is family and people being together.
How others saw my community
A community like National City, there's two views of a place like this. There's the way the community feels about itself, and then of course there's the way others view the community. And I will say we were very aware that we were considered a sketchy neighborhood or the place you wouldn't want to end up.
When you live in a community where maybe others don't value what's happening in that community, or they consider your community to be sketchy or lower class, maybe when you're outside of the community and others ask where you're from, you can be a little bit more vague because you don't want to kind of just label yourself as a National City kid.
But there was a little bit of pride in the community because the families were tight. And you know, I always tell the people, there's different messaging in different communities for the younger generations and the messaging I got was very valuable to me. It was it's all about hard work and being loyal, looking out for your cousins and your family and being respectful to your parents. So those are great values. However, it's impossible to see those values from the outside because nobody really wants to come in to the community.
Now I will also tell you, I went to high school in a completely different kind of community. It was kind of a small town beach town community that was a little more evenly split between the Mexican-American population and the White population. It's now a very wealthy community today. But when I was growing up it was sort of moving in that direction, but there were still real families that were just working working-class jobs. But I feel very lucky that I got to be in both communities to sort of see the difference. And I think I write from that point of view of having been an insider in both kinds of communities.
How language worked in my household
in terms of language growing up, my dad was a very quiet man and he spoke Spanish. My grandmother spoke Spanish and she spoke English too. My grandfather on my dad's side didn't speak English; he only spoke Spanish. And so it was very interesting as a kid because my dad was very quiet. I always say he didn't really speak any language; he just was a working class man who went to work, came home, and just sort of like provided what he could. He was there, he was always there. He always showed up, went to sporting events, stuff like that. But he was just a very quiet man.
And I think it was sort of the message in our household. It was that, to have the most opportunities in this country you will be an English speaker, you will sort of assimilate. And that's the way I sort of grew up, that's the way my sisters grew up, even my cousins.
But it's an unfortunate thing, and I think it's my dad's greatest regret is that he didn't sort of make sure we spoke Spanish with my grandparents, for instance. The generation of today, they're doing a great job of owning who they are culturally, while code-switching when they need to. And so I think there's great progress in that. We can still all be a part of America, but each different group can hang on to cultural artifacts, cultural ways of kind of moving through the world, that feel authentic to them. And I think it makes the country more interesting if you do hold on to your culture.
My experience as a struggling reader
I wasn't a real big reader and I wasn't a very confident reader early in life. In fact, when I was in second and third grade, that's when I was struggling the most. And you know, looking back, you try to figure out like, "Yhy wasn't I into books, why wasn't I a reader, why did I struggle?"
And it was pretty easy to see the answer. First of all, I never had reading modeled for me. I never saw anyone reading for pleasure. The only time we saw books were in the school setting. And if you don't feel confident in the school setting, then you don't feel like some of the stuff in that setting is for you.
But then if you're not good at something, like it was hard for me to learn to read, you just sort of like — you're not there to succeed inside of a book; you're there to survive, right? And I think that's such a common thing among reluctant readers. So yeah, it took me a little bit longer to learn how to read and be a confident reader.
But I will also say that by the time I was in fourth or fifth grade I became a pretty good reader. The problem is, I was still carrying with me this idea that I wasn't intelligent.
And I think I was just kind of passing along. And I don't think me or many of the kids I went to school with were truly seen by the system. So, you know, I was allowed to think of myself as unintelligent, on into high school and no one was really there to tell me different. So it wasn't until I got to college that I became somebody who was confident intellectually.
And here's the interesting thing: Looking back, I actually was pretty good at reading the world. Like, I had a good idea of what was happening around me. I could see underneath what people were saying and people's actions. I could understand motivations. I just hadn't transferred that to the written word.
And I think once I learned that there was a link between what novels do and what I was doing naturally, it was like, "Oh, there's a place for this. This is where people do that. They talk about what they are seeing, and that maybe other people aren't noticing." So it was kind of a natural fit for me to write novels. Even though when people talk about my background of being a non-reader, it's surprising that a non-reader would become a writer, but it's actually a better fit than you would think.
Advice for Readers: "Follow your curiosity"
What I would say to a kid who's a struggling reader or defines themselves as a reluctant reader, I would just say, you just have to follow your curiosity. So for me, I started to read biographies about basketball players because that's sort of like how I viewed myself, right? If you love videogames, you read Ready Player One, you read books about videogames. If you love dancing, then you find books about dancers and sort of their life. So, follow your intellectual curiosity and you're going to be more likely to enjoy the reading experience.
But then, I always tell young readers that are maybe not experienced readers, give every book you read 50 pages, and here's why. What you don't know when you're an inexperienced reader is that some of the best books you will ever read start off feeling uncomfortable. Maybe this writer has an interesting style or the syntax of their sentences is slightly uncomfortable for you at first, or it doesn't make sense.
Well, by page 50 you're either going to fall into it and it's going to feel like breathing to read those sentences, or the book didn't work for you. So, I always say, give a book 50 pages. Experienced readers, what we know, is that you know we're probably eventually going to figure out the rhythm of that book and then we're going to see if it's good or not. Inexperienced readers don't know that that could happen, that you could get over that hump in a book. And so that's what I often say, is like, you know, give it a chance and then you'll find out if it's worth your time or not.
How being on the margins helps me as a writer
As I get older, I'm starting to understand that all my work comes from a place of being slightly on the outside of an in group and I actually think that this is a very valuable place to be as a writer. So I was just talking with a couple of writer friends recently about the "own voice" movement and how important it is for insiders in a community to write that story, right? Because there is an authenticity.
But I was arguing that sometimes it's the insider who's sort of on the margins of that own voice community who can see it the best. Right? Because they're not right in the middle of it, they're kind of watching it and they're a good observer of that community.
So there have been several places in my life where I felt like I was slightly on the outside of that community. Well, first of all there's the obvious racial delineation of, you know, my dad was Mexican and my mom was White. So as a mixed kid, I never felt like I was quite Mexican enough to be down with my cousins or my Mexican friends. I was there, I was in these groups, but I was never on the inside.
But I also didn't feel like I was White enough to be really close with the White friends in my community, so I felt like I was just slightly on the outside there. And it's you're kind of like you're an interloper. And I feel like you get access to both groups while you're not on the inside of either.
And it's actually a great place to report from and there are many ways I've done this. So, for instance, sports and creative writing. I was a basketball player, but I was writing poetry all the time and I ultimately ended up writing books. And so I remember in the writing world I always felt like, did people think of me as a jock? And I hated that. But in the basketball world, sometimes my teammates would make fun of me for being interested in writing poems. Like this isn't what we do. So, there's that too.
And then I will also say, I grew up in this working class community. I grew up very poor and this was my life and now I'm in a different position in my life. Right? I can afford to have a house. I can afford to go to restaurants. I can afford to buy clothes any time I want.
And now it's so strange, because you would think you would settle into that new life of opportunity and privilege, but I still feel like I'm not quite in that world. So I think even in my life today, I don't feel fully inside of the group I exist in. And, that seems like it'd be a problem, but I think for me I really value it as a writer.
Reading "Basketball Digest" in high school
When I was in middle school I started to go to our school library early because my parents had to drop me off early. So I was at school an hour before school started, and I started to go into the library. Which was always a daunting place for me because there are so many books, and how do you choose, and, "Maybe I don't belong here because I'm not somebody who reads books."
But I love sports, I love basketball in particular, and I started to grab this one magazine called Basketball Digest. And I loved it - I would devour it. Every single time the new issue came out, I would just race through it. So I would go to this one table, there were many tables, and I would find my little favorite table. And I still have this weird feeling where I need this certain table, even when I'm writing at a coffee shop.
So I went to this one table and then I thought, "Is it kind of strange that I'm reading a basketball magazine in the library? This seems wrong. You know, this isn't real reading," because that's kind of the messaging I got back then. So, I thought I was kind of clever. So I grabbed the biggest book I could find, usually a big Russian novel with all these names I couldn't pronounce and I would put Basketball Digest inside of it. And I was like, "Okay, now at least the librarian will think I'm here for the right reason."
And so I would just read Basketball Digest inside of it. And I thought she barely even noticed me there. But occasionally she'd come by and say, "Oh, I see you've got a Russian novel there. How are you liking this?" And you know, I would just like sort of think I was so clever, eighth grade, "Oh, you know, this is a great book, it's called War and Peace, it's like there's all this war and then things become peaceful, it's amazing."
And she'd be like, "Okay, that's great." And she'd move along and I'd be like, oh, sucker, and I'd go back to my Basketball Digest. And then of course, she knew all along that I was reading a basketball magazine and would always pass me like secretly the new issue. And I was always confused, like, "What's going on here? Like, how does she know this?" Well, she's somebody who actually noticed the people who were in her library, and she saw us.
And the bummer is, looking back, of that whole story what bothers me the most is that somehow I had received this message that reading about sports was not real reading. When you think about it though, I was fascinated by what these different players had to overcome in their neighborhoods, in their family life, to become a successful NBA player. I was fascinated by that. I gravitated to all the profiles.
That's what you find in great literature, right? You find, you know, there's conflict, and a character has to persevere to overcome something and then you find out where they're going to be at the end of the novel that's different from the beginning.
Matt de la Peña on Reading, Writing, and Diverse Books
Providing entry points for young adult readers
One of the things that I think about now when I'm writing for young people who are often reluctant readers, at least when I'm writing my young adult novels, is I think about that version of myself and I try to leave as many entry points for kids like that as I can.
Sometimes it's going to be the character looks like you or speaks like you. Sometimes it's going to be a similar setting, but sometimes it's going to be a sport. And I'll tell you, I had one instance that really taught me a lot. My first novel is called Ball Don't Lie, but it was originally called Three Stones Back.
And you know, I didn't want to write about basketball because, as I said earlier, when I was just getting into writing I was so conscious of being viewed as a jock, that I was like a tourist in the world of art. So I didn't want to write about basketball, but then there was so much to explore in the world of pickup basketball, that I had to do it. But my title was not going to have anything to do with basketball. It was going to be Three Stones Back, which was a metaphor for class. And so this was going to be my title.
But I was a first time author, and my publisher asked me to change the title to something that included basketball. And I was heartbroken because I thought, oh, now people are going to just think I'm this basketball guy who's writing a book and it doesn't really matter. It's for kids who play basketball, and that broke my heart.
So I came up with, Ball Don't Lie, which I thought at least had like a double meaning. Well, I ended up going early in my career on a school visit to a place in Texas, a high school in Texas. And the librarian had this great idea, "I'm going to have you speak to the general population for one talk, but then the second talk is going to be only for the athletes."
But as I was walking to the second talk the head basketball coach told me about this kid named Lee who was their best basketball player, he was a sophomore, and he was definitely going to go to college on a scholarship.
He goes, "I got to tell you, Ball Don't Lie is his favorite novel he's ever read. He's read it like five times." And I was like, oh, my god, this kid sounds amazing. Should I just like bring the adoption papers with me? And he goes, well, let me let you meet him. So Lee and I had a one-on-one meeting. I'd never met anyone in my life who had read my book more than once who hadn't been paid to, like my editor.
And so I was like, "Hey, I heard Ball Don't Lie is your favorite novel?" And he was like, "Oh, yeah, I love this novel." And so I was like, "Why Ball Don't Lie?" And he said, "Well, basketball's my life; I'll read anything that has to do with basketball." And he goes, "So when I saw Ball Don't Lie, I was like I got to read this."
And I was like, "Okay, that's kind of what I had expected." But I liked, I wanted to continue this conversation because it felt good, you know. I'm meeting a reader who'd liked my book. So I said, "Well what are your favorite parts of the book, I'm just curious?" And he proceeded to describe in great detail five different scenes in the novel that were his favorite.
And here's the amazing thing. None of those scenes had anything to do with basketball. And it just taught me in that moment that my publisher was right. They allowed an entry point through the title for this kid Lee, for a kid like me, but once he got there, he found bits of the human experience the most interesting.
So basketball got him in, and being a human and watching another human try to navigate the world, is what resonated for him. And that's what he took away.
Lots of students are secret writers
There are a lot of writers out there who are similar to me. They're writing in secret, because maybe they think that, I'm not a writer, I shouldn't be writing. Or they're a boy growing up in a machismo community where, oh, writing is too sensitive, you know, I would never want my dad or my uncles or my cousins or my teammates to find out that I write. Well, that's okay to write in secret.
The reason that I wrote, and the reason why many people in these communities write secretly, is because they're trying to figure out what they think about the world. One of the best ways to understand who you are and your place in the world is to write about it.
I wrote a lot of spoken word poetry about things that confused me. And to this day I think I do the same thing. There's such a mistake when people think that writers write what they already know. I don't think that's totally true. I think writers write in the territory of something they know, but they're drawn in that category to something that confuses them or a question they have.
So I always say it's a mistake to go into a book with an answer. Really what you're trying to do is pose interesting questions. Another way to say that is, the job of the writer is not to diagnose the characters; it's just to list the symptoms and then let the reader have a chance to sort of figure out how they want to view that journey. But yeah, so I think writing is a great way to understand yourself and the people around you. And it can be secret, but ultimately you may want to share it down the road.
Are readers finding different kinds of diversities in the books they read?
I think we're doing a really good job right now talking about just different diversities that need to be represented in bookstores, in school libraries
But I think that the thing that we're not getting as much of, is other diversities, what I call like unspoken diversities. So, for instance, not every kid is growing up with a mom and a dad. Right? Maybe some kids have alternative families. Not every kid is going to school every day and getting a 3.0 and sort of thinking about the parties at the end of the week. Some kids are really, really struggling in school; some kids are failing out. Some kids are going to school and then coming home to a group home.
So, I think it's very important to share different journeys. And it's not just important for a reader who might be going through a similar journey; I think it's really important for us to ultimately read about kids who are growing up different than us. So we can have more empathy. This is the ultimate opportunity for empathy, is watching a kid in a book living a different life.
And maybe you're going to understand it better than if you just hear a quick story about, oh, so-and-so lives in a group home. Then you start to form all these ideas about what that means, snap judgments. But if you watch a kid growing up in a group home through a 300-page book, you're going to see all the nuance that you can't see when you just hear a quick quip of about that kid.
But I also just think by nature when kids are young, they are looking for extremes. Right? I think they're experimenting with the worst thing that could happen, or the fairy tale ending. You know, they want extremes because they live what they consider to be mundane lives. But why do they think it's mundane? Because this is their existence every single day and you often think your story isn't worthwhile, or it's too boring, nobody would make a movie about my life, or write a book about me, because I'm just so ordinary.
Well, when you see it in a book though you can actually see your life as extraordinary because it's actually been published, it's in the school library, and that adds an instant validation to that story. If there's something you're ashamed of, there's a little less shame if you find a book and it's been published and it's even maybe in the curriculum, or you see a friend reading your story. So that feels reinforcing and it chips away at that shame.
I think it's important for us to have stories for, particularly middle school kids and high school kids, that are on the extreme. Sometimes that scary story can actually make a kid feel safe and at home. Sometimes a story about a kid who might be a quote/unquote "messed up" lets a kid who views themselves as a mess up, sort of watch somebody else go through an experience and maybe they'll have a better — just a better idea of how to navigate it for themselves.
In a strange way, reading about stories like this give you reps on life and you kind of get to go through the process where the stakes are low because you're just reading a book. And then when it comes to your real life, maybe you have something that you can pull from watching a journey like that, that you can use in real life.
Matt de la Peña reflects on why his books are easier to find in some schools rather than others
My first four young adult novels, they're all about mixed-race kids growing up in tougher communities, similar to the community I grew up in. And so we're following kids in their own setting who are struggling. Right? And I love these books. They were quiet, they were diverse.
But I noticed something. I'd go to a Title I school and the books would have great representation; they'd even be in the curriculum sometimes. Which made me feel so proud because I remember sitting in a high school class and I remember the books that we'd be giving in the curriculum, and none of them really felt like my book. And I wondered, "Oh, maybe some of these books, they're going to reflect some of the kids' experience." And it made me feel great about that.
But then I would go to the — some of the suburban schools or private schools, and I would notice, even though I was the guest speaker, there would only be like one or two copies in the library. And I didn't understand the difference. I didn't understand why there would be a lot of them in the poorer schools, and then in the more wealthy schools, the more predominantly White schools, there wouldn't be so many.
And so I just kind of just thought, okay, well this is what it's like to be an other, there are some things you just don't understand. But then to fast forward to maybe around eight months after my fourth book came out, I went to a national conference for English teachers. I was on a panel with a couple of other authors and we had a great crowd. I think we had like 500 people or something, and we were answering questions.
And at the end I started to walk back to my hotel. And I remember there was one particular teacher who kind of hustled to catch up to me. And she said, "Matt, I'm so glad I got to talk to you. I really love your books. And I just was, I was hoping I would be able to hear you speak." And I was like, "Oh, thank you so much." And she said, "I'll be honest with you, we don't have too many kids like that in our school so we don't actually have too many copies of your books. But I wanted you to know that I really appreciate what you're doing." And I was like, "Oh, no problem, thank you ma'am."
But then there was something gnawing at me. And I didn't even understand what it was. And you know after a couple seconds' pause I looked up at her and I said, "Out of curiosity, how many wizards do you have at your school?" And she said, "What?" And I said, "Oh, never mind." But you understand the implications, right?
It was fascinating to me in that moment that, you know, these kids in private schools could read about vampires or wizards, but they felt like they were disconnected from a mixed race kid growing up in a tougher community. Isn't that interesting? I still to this day find that so fascinating.
And so, I remember thinking, when I go to the Title I schools, they're reading Looking For Alaska by John Green, they're reading Catcher in the Rye. So why can't I go to the private school and see some books with diverse characters that are at the core of the curriculum? Now, I will tell you, I'm starting to see that now. More and more I'm seeing that.
And then one other thing I want to share is I don't ever want it to come across that I'm saying we should have this kind of book, with a kid in a tough neighborhood, instead of that kind of book. I'm always hoping to say, we should have this kind of book alongside that kind of book. So, I don't believe in replacement; I just believe in inclusion.
Discovering the power of picture books as a parent
I've always been friends with authors, because I am an author, but I didn't really understand the power of some of my friends' work until I became a parent. And there is nothing more amazing to me than reading to my daughter and now my son, who are both very young, and watching their minds just expand right in front of me as we explore these seemingly simple picture books. I think we are living in a golden age of picture books. And as I'm reading them and inspired by them, and watching my kids be inspired by them, I feel so privileged that I get to do this too.
There's also something else that I think about as a picture book writer, and somebody who reads picture books to my children. I think about my childhood, and I was never surrounded by books. We didn't own books. My mom read to us sometimes, but it wasn't the focal point of our childhood. And then sometimes I look up from the chair I read to my kids in, and I just see that the walls are lined with books and I see the magic that can happen in this space. And I truly am amazed by the power of literature. My daughter, she's now seven, but for a long time, before she could read text on her own, she sort of measured the world by referencing the books we had read together and that was amazing to me.
Like if something happened, she'd say, "Oh, it's sort of like this when that happened in that book. And do you remember that scene?" And I was like, "Wow, she's using it as a reference point to life, which I never did as a kid." So I see the power of literature more as a parent than I ever have as an author, which is pretty profound.
Watching my daughter learn to read
I think one of my favorite things I've experienced as a human being is watching my daughter learn to read. She learned to read near the end of kindergarten, and at the beginning of first grade.
I was always present as my daughter was going through this process of learning to read. At first, I was holding up flash cards. Pre-pandemic I was probably going to be traveling all the time, right? But now I'm home, and I'm holding up flash cards and watching her sound out very slowly the word, cat. You know, c-a-t, cat. And she'd get so excited. Meanwhile I was always reading to her. And she loved, she's always loved story, and loves that I'm reading to her from novels.
I remember I read to her The One and Only Ivan and she just was totally locked in and asking questions. And this was during the pandemic. Then she discovered graphic novels. And I was reading those to her and she loved that she could kind of like what we would do with picture books, she'd look at the pictures while I read the text and she was getting the story on two layers.
And then I started catching her sneaking off with those books and just looking at the pictures on her own. And then fast forward a couple months and I was watching her just read some of the dialogue. Not the narrative, but just a little bit of the dialogue and she'd laugh. And I was like, "Oh, she gets it enough because we've read it together, that she can laugh at the joke."
And then slowly but surely she began reading every part of the book on her own. And that's why I value graphic novels as a literacy tool, as well as just a great vehicle for story, so much. You know, her vehicle was the Dog Man books and I watched her learn to read.
Fast forward to today and my daughter is reading book after book after book. And it's just amazing to watch her now have ownership of a story. I still read to her all the time, because I want to be a part of this too. And she won't read the books we're reading together on her own. She puts them aside, and that's her, she's being loyal to our little collaboration. But she's reading all these other books at the same time. And it's just, what a gift to watch your child learn to read.
We need diverse books
We need diverse books because we have a beautiful diverse country and there are so many wonderful stories that we all want to read.
The grandmothers who inspired Last Stop on Market Street
in Last Stop on Market Street, thematically I had been trying to cover this territory in a young adult book and it just wasn't working. And then I was alerted to an image on a young illustrator's blog. It was a grandmother and her grandson on the bus.
And I remember the minute I saw that, my agent sent it to me, who ultimately became the agent for Christian Robinson, and it was his blog. And when I saw that image I was like, "Oh, my gosh, the book I had been trying to write as a young adult needs to be a picture book." And so, then I started to think about this grandmother figure.
And for me, I had a grandmother who was the center figure in our family, my Grandmother Nettie. And so I thought of her and I thought of me because I spent a lot of time with her when I was a kid. I even lived with her for a while. And so I thought of her presence in my life and so I sort of wrote the story with that in mind. And it was kind of an "own voice" thing, where I had taken public transportation much of my young life.
But then when I was still in the process of revising the book, I was introduced to Christian Robinson for the first time, who I knew was going to illustrate it, and he was with his grandmother. And I remember I got to talk to them for about fifteen or twenty minutes. And I just saw the grace and dignity that she had.
You know, she had raised Christian in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles with a few of his cousins. And I realized at the end of that interaction that I actually had to take myself out of the book and I had to lean toward his experience. It had to be that way. And you know, there's no find and replace for race, on your keyboard. So it means you basically have to rewrite the entire book with this new vision in mind.
So I'll actually say, the book was in a way inspired by multiple grandmothers. It started with my own grandmother. It sort of leaned toward Christian's grandmother ultimately. But I also got to pull in my daughter's two grandmothers. My own mom and my wife's mother. And they both sort of fed the story too. So it's interesting, I think. There's a power in the relationship between a grandchild and a grandparent that had to be part of that story.
Originally in Last Stop on Market Street, one of the themes was that CJ wasn't raised by his parents. It wasn't a traditional family and that was stated directly in the story. But then I realized that I needed to be cleaner and more efficient in the story. So I took all of that out except for one tiny detail that most people don't really see as kind of residue of this theme.
When CJ closes his eyes on the bus, he imagines a family of hawks. And so that's the one illusion to the traditional family. And it's just a passing thought because he's a young boy growing up in America, influenced by the media that surrounds him. So in all the commercials, he's probably seeing traditional families. In all of the books he's read, he's probably mostly seeing traditional families. So there is that residue. But obviously you see that that relationship between CJ and his grandmother is what raises him.
Carmela Full of Wishes
Carmela Full of Wishes is about a young girl who's living in Watsonville, California where my parents currently live. It's a migrant community, where a lot of food is harvested. You also have a lot of migrant families. Carmela is growing up in a mixed-status family. That means her mother is an American citizen, her father is undocumented.
Sixteen million people are living in mixed-status families today in America, which makes it a common American story, but we don't often think of it that way. So I wanted to tell that story. My dad grew up in a mixed-status family and so I wanted to kind of honor that part of our family history.
This is a book that takes place in a predominantly Mexican-American community which is very important to me. The end papers, which you probably know are the very first page and the very last page of a picture book, and there's usually a picture. Well on this picture we see — we see migrant members of our community harvesting food. And I don't know if we've ever seen that in a picture book, and that alone is an important part of the story. It's sort of valuing that life and the importance of the food that is harvested.
Carmela Full of Wishes in multiple languages
this book came out the same day in English and Spanish. And Penguin, which is I have an incredible relationship with Penguin Books For Young Readers, and they've made a conscious effort to have all of my picture books released in Spanish and English on the same day. And I think that there's a power in that.
It's a very powerful symbol, saying that this book in Spanish is just as valuable and important as this book in English. And you know some people ask me, "Do I translate the story?" and I don't. I can't. I could not. But what I love is that they allow me to look at it and I get to look at the musicality of the language and you know, I can move through some of it.
But I actually get to bring in my dad to help me make sense of it. He actually titled one of my books for me. Because he was like, "I don't know about this title, Matt." And I was like, "Well, what do you think it should be?" And then he had this other idea of what the title in Spanish should be, and it worked.
So in a strange way I'm honoring my dad by trying to get the books to come out in Spanish and English the same day. And it also reflects the changing America. Right? I think we're valuing bilingualism in a way that we didn't in the past. Now we know it's an incredible — it's a gift if kids can speak more than one language.
In addition to Spanish, my books have been published in multiple languages. Dozens of languages, and that's incredible. Sometimes I'll get emails from people in other countries and they'll send a picture of the translation in whatever language that is.
And those are some of my most valued photos because it's like, oh my gosh, I can't believe this tiny little story that I wrote in this tiny little Brooklyn apartment, is now in different parts of the world that I'll maybe never get to visit. So, that's amazing. And you think of all the kids that might be exposed to Carmela's, for instance, her story.
The story behind Milo Imagines the World
Christian Robinson and I began our collaboration with Last Stop on Market Street, where I sort of moved in his direction and the story of him being raised by his grandmother. And then that was followed by Carmela Full of Wishes, where he sort of leaned toward my family background.
When we were on tour for Carmela, we had a little free time before one event and we sat in the café together and we started to talk about, "What do we want to do next together?" And we batted a few ideas back and forth. And we knew we wanted to do public transportation again because we both value that. But then he got this look on his face and he said, "I've always wanted to explore how I grew up with an incarcerated mother." And honestly, that's the last thing I remember from that conversation because I had always wanted him to say that, to me.
So I think from that point on for the next maybe about eight months, I was trying to figure out how to honor that part of his story. What he couldn't have known at the time is that I've always been fascinated with the criminal justice system in America and some of the inequalities that I've noticed through life. I have family members who have been in and out of prison and I've always been keenly aware of how the system works differently for different people. And I have a book called We Were Here, a Young Adult book, which is about kids in a group home and I worked in a group home.
So, I took that notice from Christian that he was ready to explore that story, and he was kind of inviting me into that and I disappeared. I didn't talk to him after the tour for a good six months and then I presented him with Milo. A seed was planted on tour for Carmela, and I knew this is the book that was the most important one to tell it next.
Milo Imagines the World invites readers to challenge their stereotypes
I think ultimately Milo Imagines the World is a journey of a boy learning how to understand how others see him, and also how he sees himself. And so there are two things going on there.
He's speculating about the people around him on very little information. So he imagines this scraggly-faced guy who's doing a crossword looks a little disheveled. He imagines him going off to an apartment that maybe has a lot of cats and trash and maybe he's a lonely man. So he makes that leap from this visual information, he's slightly disheveled and he has a little bit of a scraggly beard, to a lonely existence.
Well, I think part of the journey on the subway to visit his mother, part of that journey in terms of his interior journey, is that he's also beginning to connect the way he's making these judgments based on very little information, and the way people might be judging him similarly with very little information.
And there's a young boy who he thinks dressed really nice, and he's got a perfect part and shoes with no scuffs. And he thinks, "Well, this kid, this light-skinned boy, is probably living in a castle. He's got a great life." And there's one moment I think that's to me the most important moment in the book where they look at each other and in that strange moment of connecting visually, I think Milo's heart sinks.
Because when he looks at this boy he sees all the possibilities that this boy has that he doesn't have. And in that way he's actually stereotyping himself, which we don't often talk about with this book. And I think he's building walls around himself in that moment, that he's not fully aware of.
And I'll tell you, this comes from my own childhood. I remember we never went to restaurants. And one time a friend's family took me to a restaurant and I was so nervous because it had cloth napkins and the waitress was actually asking me what I wanted to order. And I had never experienced this, like, "What salad dressing do you want?" And I was so confused, and like, literally sweating.
And then I saw this other boy who was the same age as me at a couple tables away. And I remember he just seemed so confident. And two things ran through my mind at that moment. First I thought, "This kid, he just has different access to the world than I do and I'm never going to have the opportunities he has," and it made me feel like my life was more limited. And then I also thought, "If I ever have any money, I'm going to go to restaurants every day so I know how to do this," and I also thought it was fun.
But I think, in that moment, Milo's feeling something similar. He's actually building walls around his own possibilities by judging himself against somebody else. Now, when he sees that this same boy is going to the same destination that he is, that he also has an incarcerated mother, it pops something. And now he has to confront that, "Maybe these judgments that I have, that are based on stereotypes, lazy stereotypes, maybe they're in need of revision, or maybe I need to be less confident about them."
And so I think what I was really trying to challenge young people to do is, is understand that when you see somebody on the street and you sort of do lean on these lazy stereotypes that we all lean on, try to be more generous with people around you, because behind every face we see on the street there's an entire story that we don't have access to. And I think if we understand that, we will be more generous with people around us.
Winning the Newbery gave me the freedom to tell the stories I wanted to tell
Winning the Newbury Medal is a gift in many ways, but the most important gift it gives you is the freedom to tell the story that you're called on to tell. No matter how non-commercial it might seem, no matter how sort of daring it might seem to you.
So, when I sat down to write Milo, I understood and I was very aware of the fact that, if I was a new author, I might not get to tell this story. But you need to take advantage of the fact that after winning the Newbury a publisher might allow you to take bigger risks.
So, that's why I decided that I could try to tell Milo's story. But not only tell Milo's story. But do it in a way that was pointing young kids into a direction of something that was not often spoken about to young kids, such as the danger of stereotypes. And also the way that some kids are growing up with parents in the system and how not only the parent is getting that sentence, but the child is, too.
The piano scene in Love
When I was writing my third picture book, Love, I set out to write a totally reinforcing story that was full of joy and full of love to the point that it was called Love. Why? Well, because I had a new daughter and I wanted to write a story that I could read to her at the end of the night, and feel good about myself and hopefully have her feel good about the world as much as she could. But the symbol was that I just wanted to share love with kids all over the country. Right?
But after I wrote the book, and revised it several times, it just felt like there was something missing. And I had an epiphany. Because, and this all comes down to the way I see the world. I think there's great love in the world, but I also see a lot of sadness and I see melancholy. And I don't think it's something that we should try to eliminate; I think it's part of our journey.
So, if I was going to write a book called Love, I felt like I had to at least acknowledge adversity. And in one of the scenes in the book, it's a big cast of characters, right? The way I describe it is, the main character in the book Love is a contemporary American childhood and so there are kids of all different races and abilities. So we're trying to bring as many people into this concept of love as possible. No one person owns the concept of love.
Well one kid, he's kind of hovering underneath a piano with his dog and he's hiding because his two parents are in an argument. And it seems like it might have been a big argument, a scary argument, because there's a lamp that's toppled over, and even a little loveseat that's on its side. So it's a scary moment.
And I felt like it's important for kids to know at a young age that adversity exists and it's part of our journey. And in some ways it's beautiful. It's just as beautiful as the parts where we're happy and joyful and full of love. It's just part of our experience as humans.
Well, we had this book in, I guess it's called F&G form, folded and gathered. So, it goes out to bookstores and it goes out to reviewers. And there was a little bit of controversy about this particular moment and there was some pushback from a certain outlet.
They said basically, "We can't have a book called Love have this moment of violence, of insinuated violence, so, can you take it out?" And the illustrator and I, Loren Long, we really had to sit with this feedback and decide what were we going to do. This is where art and commerce collide. So, if we took this scene out, maybe it would really help with book sales. And if we kept this scene in because we thought it was the right artistic choice, maybe it would harm the book's ability to get out into the world when, let's be honest, that's what we want our books to do. We want them to have a wide reach. We want every community to read the book to their young family members.
Well, we're lucky because we had experienced a little success in previous books, both of us. So we just took the risk and we said, "We're going to keep it in," because we felt like that beat needed to be in the story. And I'd have to tell you, like, I'm so thankful we did because one of my proudest feelings about the book Love now is that it has generated lots of conversations, not only about the concept of love but the concept of adversity.
And I think at the end of the day, all books are — they're just a vehicle to conversations. And I think this added to the conversations that were possible around the book Love and that's why it needed to be kept in.
I remember posing through an essay conversation with Kate DiCamillo, like, "What is the job of the author for the very young? Is it to preserve innocence or tell the truth?" That's a big question for a writer of books for young people. And you know, she said, "I think our job is to love the world." And I thought that that was such a beautiful answer to the point that every time I sign the book Love, you know, I write the person's name, "To Todd, Love the World," and then I write, sign my name.
So I kind of am plagiarizing Kate DiCamillo every time I sign that name or sign that book. But I just think that's such a great way to sort of think about that particular scene in Love that is kind of scary. Well, I hope that in presenting that I'm also loving the world.
Addressing addiction's impact on families in Love
Loren Long, the illustrator of Love, and I sat down and we were talking about each little vignette in the book. And when we got to this moment where the text sort of ended up being the boy under the piano, initially he told me, "I was thinking of a Norman Rockwell moment where there's the death of a pet and they're sort of gathered around, mourning the passing of a valued pet."
And I was like, "Oh, yeah, that could be good." But then I had this instinct to ask him, "What would you do if you could do anything in this moment?" And I remember we were sitting at lunch in Atlanta at a conference and he paused for a very long time. And then he looked up at me with this look of like pure honesty. And he said, "Alcohol has really harmed my family. There's a lot of problems that have come from that. And when I think of this text, I think of that part of my family."
And he said, "I just don't know if we can do that in a picture book." And I was like, "I don't think we can either, but let's try." So that is why there is an empty tumbler on top of the piano, suggesting that perhaps the father had been drinking.
And here is what I think is important about that. There are so many kids out there today who are under the metaphorical piano, for the exact same reason. It might not be alcohol, but it might be some other version of that and it's affecting the family.
And that is a diversity that we don't often talk about is that so many kids have trauma in their family lives caused from substance abuse. So that was part of what we wanted to sort of suggest in there. And now we tried to make it quiet because some kids don't even notice that. And that's okay too. That's not their entry point into the story. But some older kids feel seen, and some older kids ask questions. And I think that layer needs to be there, too.
Why Matt de la Peña likes to challenges assumptions about identity in his books
In my Young Adult books, I love to work with mixed-race kids because it's often assumed that based on how somebody looks they're going to use a certain language, or have a certain set of problems. And so I hope that I can kind of complicate those kind of assumptions in my Young Adult books.
What I love about novels is that you can really get into the nuance because you have more space to work with. So, you know, a book like, We Were Here, this is a good example of this, where all the other characters called my main character Mexico. He's a mixed race kid, he's never been to Mexico. And he's so, he feels so complicated, like it's such a complicated set of feelings he has about being called Mexico.
And at one point in the story he's actually standing at the border looking into Mexico, wanting to escape what he's done in America. And he has this epiphany that, you know what? I don't deserve to go to Mexico yet. I need to go there once I've cleaned things up in America and then explore that part of who I am.
So I think the mixed race identity is so fascinating. It's something that we never talked about when I was a kid. Nobody wanted to talk about that. They would just kind of like not mention it, not really own it. Whereas today I think more and more kids are mixed race and so more and more kids are open about it and talking about it.
My own kids are mixed. They have Mexican, White, and Asian. And so it's just interesting to see how they're going to forge their identity. So yeah I think, I remember when I was playing college basketball. There was this one section of fans in our arena. And they would always hold up signs for me. And we called it the De La Peña Zone.
And you know I wasn't even like a star on the team or anything. But they, there was — it was a Mexican community that would go up there and they were so happy that there was a Mexican player on this team they rooted for. And so they would hold up signs. And one night on fan appreciation day, all my teammates were like, you go to go up there, you go to go talk to them. And I was like, yeah, let's — I go to go up there.
So I went up to the top and they were sitting near the top, behind the basket. And I went up to them and they started, you know, all talking at me at once and speaking very fast Spanish. And I remember I had to be like, "Oh, no, no entiendo." So I felt like I was slightly letting them down because I wasn't fluent in Spanish. But what happened was so beautiful. They just — they stopped using words and just pulled me into a hug and they just like sort of hugged me. And I'll just never forget that experience. And it sort of comes out, in some ways, in my Young Adult novels, that sort of complexity about being mixed.
Matt de la Peña talks about writing Superman: Dawnbreaker
When I was invited to get the opportunity to tell Superman's story as a teen, I was overwhelmed. I also thought, "Oh, this isn't really a good fit for me. I don't really watch those kinds of movies. I didn't grow up reading comics. I don't know if I'm the right person for the job."
But then there are two other factors that I think came into play. First of all, when my dad was young, his favorite superhero in the world was Superman. And I used to ask him, this is strange because he was somebody who actually felt like the American Dream didn't apply to him and that was the messaging I got all through my childhood.
He had a chip on his shoulder, he said, "America doesn't care about people like me. We are voiceless. America doesn't even want to know I exist." But yet, he loved Superman. And I remember asking him, "Why Superman?" As an adult asking him this. And he said, "Well, he's like the ultimate American. You know, like he's like everybody looks up to him. I just love that. I wondered what it would be like to have that thought about me."
So that was one thing. But then I also thought, well actually Superman's the ultimate immigrant, right? Because he's coming from somewhere else. Is this a possible vehicle to explore immigration? I had just come off writing Carmela Full of Wishes, the picture book, about a mixed-status family and I thought, "Gosh, the themes are so similar, I wonder if I could do that?" But then I also thought, "There is no way the publisher will let me do this. This is a superhero story, it's supposed to be exciting and save the world."
And so I said, "I would love to tell this story, but I would love to tell it this way." And I thought I'd get major pushback, but they said, "That's what we want you to do." So I was so excited. And that's how I approached it. I thought, here's a young man who identifies, according to other people, as American, as the ultimate American even. But deep down he has the same feelings of identity insecurities that, you know, all the characters I write about have. So, it was actually a really nice fit.
And, to bring it back to something we talked about earlier, it was also an opportunity to bring in reluctant readers to explore some of the themes I'm interested in. So, here's a superhero story. Well, that may be your entry point. But once you get in there, maybe you get to explore, "What does it mean to be an immigrant? What does it mean to feel ‘othered'?" How do you navigate that? So that was a really fun, kind of like subversive thing I got to do in Superman.