During Antioch’s June 2016 residency, my mentor suggested I pick up a copy of Matt de la Peña’s Newbery Medal-winning picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, to explore the effective use of diversity in children’s literature. When I returned home to Arizona, I not only picked up a copy of de la Peña’s book, I became an immediate fan. Matt de la Peña’s gentle writing accomplishes what only the best children’s literature can—it taps into the collective sense of wonder that continues to exist just under the surface, long after we dare to grow up.
During the course of his highly acclaimed career, de la Peña has written six young adult novels: Ball Don’t Lie (2005), Mexican WhiteBoy (2008), We Were Here (2010), I Will Save You (2010), The Living (2013), and its sequel The Hunted (2015). His picture books include A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (illustrated by Kadir Nelson, 2011), and Last Stop on Market Street (illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2015). Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full basketball scholarship. De la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and young daughter. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.
I had the good fortune of attending a lecture that de la Peña gave at Antioch’s December 2016 residency on exercising restraint when writing for young people. As he gave his presentation, it became quite apparent that de la Peña personifies the complex qualities of the diverse characters he writes about. He is an eloquent educator who thinks of himself as working-class. He is a quiet observer who speaks with a casual familiarity that makes you swear he lived just down the street where you grew up. He is at once a formidable ex-athlete and a gentle creative.
On an early March afternoon in 2017, I spoke with Matt de la Peña at his office at San Diego State University via Skype. We spent an hour discussing diversity, politics, craft, and daughters.
Kim Sabin: You have such an interesting personal background. Can we start with how you came to pursue your MFA and professional writing career?
Matt de la Peña: I went to undergrad at University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship. I didn’t really see writing as any type of professional path, but I had really supportive professors in undergrad and I took a couple of creative writing classes. I ended up winning this school writing competition and it really was validating. I think my professors said, “Look… if you want to pursue writing, you could try to get an MFA.” I’d never heard of what that was, so they had to sit me down and tell me. Then I ended up leaving undergrad and working in a group home for a couple of years. My professors, without me knowing, had pulled together my work, and sent it out to a couple of MFA programs. They told me, “We did your manuscript, now you have to do the actual formal part, if you want to do this.” And so, I was like, “Sure!” So that’s how I ended up in an MFA program.
KS: You’ve labeled yourself as a “working-class writer”—both in regards to your family background and your approach to your daily writing practice. Can you share what you mean by this?
The way I look at it is—instead of working with cement, I’m working with words. But it’s the same kind of laborious, hard-worker, show-up-every-day kind of situation.
MDLP: There are some people who are just geniuses and they have incredible ideas and they wait for that moment of inspiration where it hits and they produce really quickly a really interesting quality of work. That’s a very small percentage of us, though. Most of us, if we are going to finish a piece, we have to sit down and do the hard work and clock in every day. It’s approaching writing not from inspiration, but more from the idea that it’s just like any other work. The way I look at it is—instead of working with cement, I’m working with words. But it’s the same kind of laborious, hard-worker, show-up-every-day kind of situation.
KS: I remember listening to another interview and you literally show up every day. You have an office you go to…
MDLP: I do. Right now, I’m actually sitting in an office at San Diego State because I’m teaching here a semester. But back home in Brooklyn, I have a writing studio and I have to go there every day.
KS: You didn’t self-identify as a “kidlit” author when you began your career. You studied straight fiction writing in your MFA program at San Diego State. Can you talk about how you fell into both the YA and children’s literature genre? How has your MFA background shaped your approach to children’s literature?
MDLP: That’s a good question. When I came out of my MFA program, children’s literature wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. It wasn’t as commercially viable. These days, in the past two years in some cases, children’s literature is carrying the publisher, which has never happened before. I think we had Harry Potter, and then ultimately that led to Twilight and The Hunger Games. Those big-ticket, commercial ones opened up doors in the publishing industry and the industry started scooping up everything they could that had a young protagonist. My book got caught up in that wave—my first book. And then, if your first book does well, your publisher’s going to say, “Do that again, only different.” So, I found myself writing a second young adult novel. At that point YA was becoming a popular thing—not just the big commercial stuff, but even in a literary way. I started realizing that these were stories that were close to my heart. I love the coming-of-age stories. It ended up being a good fit.
The picture book part of the equation came later. It was my agent who talked me into it. He actually said, “There are parts of your first book that I’ve showed publishers and said, ‘Don’t you think that this language style could make for an interesting picture book?’ And a lot of them said, ‘If he has something… let’s do it!’” That led to my first picture book, which is about boxing, and then my second picture book. I feel like in both cases, I didn’t aim for children’s literature—YA or picture books—but it is, actually, a good fit.
KS: In an online interview with VOYA, you said, “I don’t believe in happy endings, but I do believe in hopeful endings.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how that applies to YA and children’s literature?
MDLP: Some people, when they think of kidlit, they think of some lesson or moral or “what’s the message?” of the book. That’s a bummer, because really good children’s literature doesn’t have a message so directly. When you’re starting to look for that happy ending, you’re also veering into the territory of the message—especially with YA. It’s very important to provide hope, but that’s just good storytelling. I don’t think it’s that different from adult fiction versus YA. In good storytelling there is an element of hope because that’s just the human existence. We look for hope. But the happy ending… It either feels too neat, and too aligned, or it feels too moral. Those are the things I try to duck. But for me, the hopeful ending, especially if it’s vaguely hopeful, it’s not fantastic… It’s really satisfying.
KS: Realistically hopeful?
KS: You sit on the boards of both the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and We Need Diverse Books. Inclusion and diversity are hot topics in kidlit right now. Can you talk about why stories representing underrepresented demographics are so important in children’s literature?
MDLP: It’s very interesting. I meet so many young people who got caught up in a book or a series and they loved it at the time. Then they speak about it now and they realize, “Wow… I was really identifying with a story where I actually didn’t have a place within the story. I tried to shoehorn myself into it.” Now, we’re meeting people—young people—who are actually seeing themselves in books more. The biggest thing that I’m seeing, the way that I describe it is, it’s a whole other level when you actually identify with a main character who is an “other.” It’s really validating. You’re actually inside the book before you even read the story, and that’s important. I recently was at this school, and I’ve been asking kids, “Why is it important to see yourself in books?” This one kid, he didn’t say it eloquently, but I thought he said it the best. He said, “I love reading. I love reading stories that are fantastical. I love reading stories with wizards or fairies, but when I read a book with a character like me…” (He was a mixed kid) “…There’s just something extra for me.” There is that little something extra that needs to be spread around not just with mainstream readers but also with all readers.
KS: In 2012, your YA novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, was banned in Arizona. How did this come about? What did this experience mean to you and has it changed the way you approach your writing?
My book, Mexican WhiteBoy, was deemed “anti-white,” which is interesting because the main character is half-white. What happened is the kids were reading the Mexican WhiteBoy books and some people from the superintendent’s office came in and literally pulled the books out of the kids’ hands, put them in a box, and placed them in the basement.
MDLP: You write these books and you don’t really think about where they’re going to end up or what’s going to happen to them, and you work on the next one. Mexican WhiteBoy had been out for maybe a couple of years and little did I know there was this program in Arizona, Tucson specifically, called the “Mexican-American Studies” program—the MAS program. A group of educators said, “We have a struggling student body and it’s predominantly Mexican-American. Eighty-five percent. What if we, for extra motivation, had a curriculum that was focused on teaching books that featured characters that looked like them? History about their lives? Written by people whose last names they would identify with?” It was a really successful program.
One of the books in this curriculum was Mexican WhiteBoy. It got caught up in the political situation that was happening there. I think somebody in the program said, “Republicans hate Mexicans.” Which isn’t true, but it started this whole thing. The school board said, “Okay, there’s obviously something wrong in this program.” My book, Mexican WhiteBoy, was deemed “anti-white,” which is interesting because the main character is half-white. What happened is the kids were reading the Mexican WhiteBoy books and some people from the superintendent’s office came in and literally pulled the books out of the kids’ hands, put them in a box, and placed them in the basement. They were illegal to read in that school district. It was a huge bummer and it’s still in the courts, actually… seven years later. It was one of those weird experiences where you go, “Oh my gosh. The book when I finished it is no longer mine.” It’s used by different people for different purposes. One group was using it to inspire kids that looked like the main character or felt like the characters in the book. Then another group came along and used it as a political tool in the opposite way.
KS: It’s almost like you release it to the world and it becomes what someone needs it—or wants it—to become.
MDLP: That’s why when some writers try to take too much control over views or stuff like that, you’re not seeing it correctly. The truth is… It’s no longer yours. It’s actually an incredible honor to have your book used in these other ways. It means you made something that is a tool for others.
KS: You won the 2016 Newbery Medal for your picture book, Last Stop on Market Street. In your acceptance speech, you praised librarians and said, “In a time when some people want to build walls, you give young people the tools to tear them down.” Within the industry, librarians and teachers are referred to as “the gatekeepers.” What responsibility do these gatekeepers have within our new political climate in the United States? And do you think it is the role of children’s literature writers to plant the seeds of social justice within their young readers?
MDLP: That’s a good question. I’ve seen so many writers, myself included, who are starting to think, “What does it mean?” With what’s going on politically now and how we’re seeing a nationalistic view of the country and this ideology that’s like, “We need to keep ourselves safe and everybody else out.” A lot of people want to react directly against that. And again, this is where you start to enter into the pitfall, I should say. I read this article in the Wall Street Journal, I think it was, by [Haruki] Murakami, a novelist, and he said, “If your dog dies, and you want to write a story about your dog dying, there should be no dogs in the story.” That’s what we have to do. It’s there, but it’s super-subversive. Because if you hit it too head-on—I’d equate it to putting pop culture in your book—it time-stamps it. If you have Pepsi in your book, then, “That’s today.” You know what I mean? You have to find a way to do something universal but that is subversively providing another way of looking at the world. It’s funny because I just finished a picture book that’s coming out this fall. It’s called Love and it’s a reaction to all of this stuff. But there’s no politics in this book. It’s subversively about what’s happening, but if you read it thirty years from now, you could never actually locate where I was coming from.
KS: One of the bonuses of writing for young people has got to be school visits. I’d imagine that immediacy of interacting with young readers must be fulfilling. Can you talk about that experience?
MDLP: The bummer is you have to do them a lot. Sometimes, you find yourself doing too many of them and it’s really hard to keep up on your work—your writing—when you’re out in the schools. I’ve been trying to limit them, because if I limit them, they’re more powerful for me. My favorite thing is meeting readers who, seriously, don’t know what a Newbery is… They don’t care. And it’s just cool to get their authentic interaction about a book and a story and a character. I’ve been doing high school visits for years and years, but I’ve been doing more elementary school visits… and they are fascinating. Just the kids you meet and the things they say—they’re so authentic.
KS: Your picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, tells the story of young C.J. and his grandmother, Nana, taking a bus ride through their urban community. While C.J. laments for all of the things he wishes he had in his life, Nana gently reminds them of their good fortune. Why do you think this particular story struck such a nerve at this moment in American culture?
MDLP: Again, I have to be very honest here. If this book came out six years ago, it would’ve been a very small book, very quiet. Some people would have loved it and other people would’ve never heard of it. We were fortunate to get on Morning Edition on NPR and that introduced the book to a lot of new people. And then, of course, it wins an award and that’s ensures that it’s going to be introduced to many more readers and it’s going to be in every school.
There’s a new thing happening and it’s my personal approach to writing diversity right now, which is I’m trying to write characters that are diverse—which I always have been doing—but putting them in stories that have nothing, at least overtly, to do with diversity. This is the new diversity.
So, what about this book at this moment? There’s a new thing happening and it’s my personal approach to writing diversity right now, which is I’m trying to write characters that are diverse—which I always have been doing—but putting them in stories that have nothing, at least overtly, to do with diversity. This is the new diversity. It’s where it exists in the story, the main character is a non-traditional protagonist, but it’s not about that. It’s about something else. In this case, it’s about gratitude, but also subversively, it’s about seeing yourself as beautiful. It’s also timely, because there was this reaction that not enough books with diverse characters were getting recognition and so some committees, if you want to be honest, were like, “You know what? We’re going to do this. This is this story’s time.” You like to think that your book is just an incredible work and it’s rewarded for that. But it’s not just that. Every award selection is a political act. Again, my book was caught up in a political act and it’s something I have to acknowledge. Of course, it’s one of those things where it was good enough to be put in the place as a tool for this committee. You see what I’m saying?
KS: Christian Robinson was the illustrator for Last Stop on Market Street. My daughter is a senior in high school, but I can’t remember seeing a tattooed character in any of the children’s books we read together. This small detail felt groundbreaking to me. Was this something you and Christian discussed? Can you talk about what the collaborative process between the writer and illustrator on children’s books looks like?
MDLP: This is a very non-traditional relationship we have. Usually, the author and the illustrator are kept apart until the book comes out. The reason why they do that, of course, is to make sure the writer doesn’t take too much ownership of the story. Because in the best picture books, the illustrator actually is telling a slightly different story, in and out of the text. You know, those are the best illustrators. But, we have the same agent and we met before I was even done with the text. It was sold with Christian attached. We talked a few times. We switched a couple of things. One of the things he really wanted in the text after he read the initial draft… He said, “I would love to have an animal somewhere.” That was interesting, because it led me to think about the blind man with the dog, which kind of is one of my favorite parts of the book. So, that was one switch we did.
We also talked about this idea of just having diverse characters in a story that isn’t about diversity. I said, “Anything you can do visually to support that idea, you know, go for it.” We didn’t talk directly about the tattooed guy, but when I saw him, I was like, “Man, that’s it!” He found it. Originally, when I wrote the text, it was a Mexican kid. But I met his grandmother, who raised him, [as] I found out, and I thought, “I’ve got to use my resources here.” So I switched the characters to black and this led to, to me, one of the most important things, which is they’re sitting in the front of the bus… That’s an incredibly important moment in the book. Nobody ever talks about it, but it’s a callback to the Civil Rights movement. It’s weird how those little magical things made the book better than if we were kept apart.
KS: In an interview with YALSA you said, “I love the strange mix of innocence and sophistication in great picture books.” You’ve already discussed how you transitioned from writing YA novels to writing picture books. Do you use similar craft techniques when approaching both categories?
When I write a picture book, I look at it as a spoken-word poem.
MDLP: When I write a picture book, I look at it as a spoken-word poem. Before I ever wrote fiction, I used to write spoken-word poetry. It was so much based on rhythms and music. Before I even knew how to craft a story, I was doing that. So when I write a picture book, it’s about music—getting the story right, and then getting the music right. The biggest thing is making it all feel authentic. You have two audiences when you write a picture book. You have the adults and you have the child. You’re nodding to both, but erring on the side of the young person. It’s an interesting balancing act. Now, I’m not good at writing goofy. There’s some really great, amazing books that are silly and goofy that kids love. My daughter loves them. But I like to write picture books with weight and sadness. Those are my favorite picture books to read to my daughter and they are my favorite stuff to try to write. But I will tell you, she’s more likely at her age—she’s two-and-a-half—to reach for silly. But occasionally, she’s ready for the weighty book and we get into great discussions. I’d rather my book be pulled once a week as opposed to twice a night for that substantive conversation.
KS: What’s your favorite genre to read? What are you currently reading?
MDLP: I love gritty, sad, adult, literary fiction. I just read Underground Railroad [Colson Whitehead], which I thought was fantastic. My momentum is carrying me toward a lot of nonfiction, but a lot of social justice stuff. I just read Just Mercy [Bryan Stevenson], and Evicted [Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond], about the social justice system, which is even more important now. Cormac McCarthy is my favorite writer in the world and he’s super-dark and he writes these incredible, hacked sentences. I love Junot Diaz. I love the way he marries Spanish—and not always the language of Spanish—but just Spanish is in his sentences, even when they’re in English. It’s a slightly different rhythm to his sentences and he has a kind of street-sensibility. I love that. I read this book called Lab Girl recently [Hope Jahren], which is about a female scientist. By the way, I’m reading a lot of feminist stuff right now, because I have a daughter… I’d like to see the world through her eyes, you know? In terms of young people literature, I love Christopher Paul Curtis, who wrote Bud, Not Buddy. I love Markus Zusak, who wrote The Book Thief. I like realistic stuff. I struggle with fantasy. Not because I don’t appreciate it, but because the real world is so fascinating… I want to stay there.
KS: Can you share any projects that you’re currently working on?
MDLP: I have Love coming out in the fall. I did a picture book with Pixar for a movie that they have coming out called CoCo. That’s coming out in the fall. CoCo is about the Day of the Dead. It’s a Mexican kid who plays the guitar. I’m super-excited about that, because I’ve never done a tie-in and it was really cool because they gave me complete freedom to go away from the story with the main character. I got to see the movie already, so that was amazing. I also have a book called Carmela Full of Wishes, which is a picture book that will come out maybe January of next year. And then I have my YA… I have two projects. I have one called One of Those Likes Used to Love Me, which is an older YA. A nineteen-year-old character right about to go to college, super working-class kid—mixed-race. I’m also doing Superman, which is a pretty crazy project where four authors are doing superheroes—you know, DC [Comics] superheroes. Wonder Woman is coming out first, and then Batman, and Catwoman, and then I’m doing Superman. That will come out, I think, late 2018.
KS: Wow! And you’re teaching and you have a two-and-a-half year-old…
MDLP: That’s why I’m a year late on my YA.
KS: Matt de la Peña, thank you for your time.
MDLP: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.