After the Call: The Luckiest Guy in the World

Before I won the Newbery Medal, my dream had already come true. I was a published author. The quiet, melancholy stories I was always writing late at night, in my shared Brooklyn apartment, were turning into real-life books. The kind you could buy at a bookstore. Or check out from the library.

Whenever a new book came out — I mostly wrote YA back then — I would go to my local indie to see it on the shelf. Sometimes I’d even pick it up and flip through the first few pages, trying to put myself into the shoes of a bookstore browser. Then I’d put it back on the shelf and stare some more. I just couldn’t believe that my name was on an actual book.

The stories I was writing were all rooted in my own ordinary childhood experience. They followed mixed-race kids living in working-class communities. Sure, my sales were modest. I never once approached the New York Times Best Seller list. (I don’t think I even knew what that was back then). But I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

Then early one morning, while I was in Minneapolis for a writing residency, I got a strange phone call. The man on the other end of the line, who introduced himself as Ernie Cox, chair of the Newbery committee, told me I’d been awarded the Newbery Medal for Last Stop on Market Street, my picture book illustrated by Christian Robinson. A chorus of cheers erupted behind him. At first I was incredibly confused. It was around 4:00 a.m., and I was half asleep. And hadn’t he meant to say “Caldecott”? But then why would he be calling me? I confirmed, thanked Ernie and the rest of the committee profusely, and then our phone call was over, and I was alone in my tiny hotel room again. I sat there for a few minutes, stunned. I called my wife. I called my agent and Christian. Then I put away my phone and tried to go back to sleep. But I couldn’t sleep. Because suddenly I found myself quietly weeping.

De la Peña with illustrator Christian Robinson. Photo courtesy of Matt de la Peña.

This incredible recognition changed my life in so many ways. At first, I rode the excitement of all the congratulatory texts and tweets. I looked on in awe at all the news stories that highlighted Last Stop. And me and Christian. Then came a phase of profound imposter syndrome. What if the committee had made a mistake? What if they regretted their decision? Then came a troublesome phase of creative doubt. I would study each new rough-draft sentence, trying to determine if it was strong enough to justify the faith the committee had placed in me. Inevitably the sentence would fall short, and I would delete it off my screen forever. Then came a stretch of nonstop travel. I found myself talking about writing more than I was actually writing. And I was constantly away from my new family. I think I was a bit lost during those days.

De la Peña with a school's Last Stop art. Photo courtesy of Matt de la Peña.

But since that first stressful year, things have settled down. I’ve shaken free of the creative pressure I once put on myself. I’ve returned to the quiet, melancholy stories I’m most interested in telling. I’ve cut back on my travel so I can be home more. And when I do hit the road for events, I have a new appreciation for all the amazing young people I get to meet around the country. In red states and blue states. In big cities and quiet rural towns. At each stop, I get to share my work and talk about the power of books and literacy. I get to talk about the significance of each and every one of our “ordinary” childhood experiences.

Wife Caroline Sun and daughter Luna. Photo courtesy of Matt de la Peña.

Winning the Newbery Medal was the best book-related thing that’s ever happened to me. And it was also the most challenging. Life is complicated that way. Just like people are complicated. And good stories, too. But I do know one thing that is entirely straightforward. Throughout all the ups and downs, and the highs and lows, I still feel like the luckiest guy in the world. Because I get to write books for young people.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Matt de la Peña

Matt de la Peña won the Newbery Medal in 2016 for Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson. His latest book is Milo Imagines the World (also illustrated by Robinson), with Patchwork (all Putnam) forthcoming.

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