Author Spotlight: Matt de la Peña
“Something I can’t ignore: Tomorrow’s #teenlitcon in Minn will be 95% white. The juvenile detention centers I just visited were 95% brown.”
Matt de la Peña tweeted the above in advance of the Twin Cities Teen Lit Con, where he was to be one of the featured authors. His tweet was amplified by retweets and favorites from librarians, teachers, and YA lit fans who have an interest in diversity in teen fiction. He didn’t let the subject end with a tweet, though. At the conference, he spoke to a group of aspiring writers, teen fiction readers, and educators about his own experience with books, which isn’t what you might expect of an author.
He admitted that he had struggled with learning to read in elementary school and that he had read “maybe three books in high school.” His grades were mediocre and college wasn’t expected. Most people from his old neighborhood, he said, got jobs right out of high school and had families young. It wasn’t a community that valued education or creativity. He told a story about his uncle’s run-in with the police that illustrated his perception of manhood as a teen. It was all about machismo, never being seen as soft or sensitive. There was no place for pleasure reading in that culture.
It wasn’t until college that he discovered books. Novels by Latino and African-American writers who wrote stories that felt familiar to him were what really hooked him on reading. These were stories that felt comfortable. He said in his talk, “When you’re a reluctant reader, it is so important that you feel comfortable on page one.” You can tell from his books that de la Peña strives to do just that.
de la Peña’s third book, We Were Here, kept coming to mind during his talk. In the book, Miguel, who has been sentenced to a year in a group home, tells his story in raw voice. The court-ordered journal he keeps is filled with slang as he recounts his experiences in a juvenile detention center and on his own after he and others run away. Along the way, though, Miguel reads some of the same books that de la Peña shared in his talk: The House on Mango Street, The Color Purple, and others. In the book, Miguel acknowledges that where he’s from “it ain’t cool to read no book unless some teacher’s making you.”
Reading changed Matt de la Peña’s life. It created a space for emotion and opened doors to creativity that made him the man he is today, and he shared his belief that it can change the lives of young people now—including those kids in juvenile detention centers, in neighborhoods like the one in which he grew up, and in families that don’t value reading—if we can connect them with stories that reflect their lives, stories that make them feel comfortable from page one.
In We Were Here, Miguel writes in his journal about the power of reading for him:
“But when you read books, you almost feel like you’re out there in the world. Like you’re going on this adventure right with the main character. At least, that’s the way I do it.”
Matt de la Peña is an important voice in the push for greater diversity in children’s and young adult literature. If his books aren’t on your radar, they should be. They just might change a young person’s life.
Selected titles by Matt de la Peña:
Ball Don’t Lie. 2005. 9780385734257. Gr. 9-12
Mexican White Boy. 2008. 9780440239383. Gr. 9-12
We Were Here. 2009. 9780385736701. Gr. 9-12
I Will Save You. 2010. 9780385738286. Gr. 9-12
The Living. 2013. 9780385741200. Gr. Gr. 9-12
The Hunted. 2015. 9780375989926. Gr. 9-12