Profile of 2016 Newbery Medal winner Matt de la Peña

delaPena_MattThe first time I met Matt de la Peña, he was sitting at a table in the Random House booth at the 2008 National Council of Teachers of English annual convention in San Antonio. It was shortly before the exhibit hall was scheduled to close, and the booth was empty. No fans. No signing lines. Just Matt.

I’d read his young adult novels — there were only two at that point, Ball Don’t Lie and Mexican WhiteBoy — and I’d loved them. But there was more to my response than love. I thought Matt’s books were important.

Here were characters who used metaphor to tell the truth about our unequal society. Here were urban settings where poor people asked questions about power and wealth, called out privilege, and talked frankly about the haves and have-nots. Best of all, here was a style of writing in which street-smart dialogue was rendered in prose that read like poetry. This was the kind of YA lit I wanted to see more of. These were novels I wanted to champion.

I had a platform, albeit a small one, as host of Text Messages, a young-adult literature podcast sponsored by ReadWriteThink. I was new to the role, but having a professional space to talk about books for teens gave me the chance to promote authors whose work I believed in. Matt was at the top of my list.

So, I took a deep breath, walked into the booth, and introduced myself. Explained my goals for the show and asked Matt if he’d allow me to interview him sometime in the coming year.

I can still recall the interest he took in my work, right from the start. His easy laugh, and how good he was at making conversation. I can still see the slight head nod he gave as he listened, a gesture that said, I’m present with you in this moment, and I’m invested in what you’re saying.

Now I understand that this generosity of spirit, this way of making people feel valued, is the essence of who Matt is. It’s why, when Mexican WhiteBoy was banned in Tucson, Arizona, under a 2010 law that gutted the school district’s Mexican American studies curriculum, he accepted the invitation from a high school junior to speak at her school and used his speaking fee to buy the students replacement copies of the book. It’s why, when Matt learned that a middle-school student in Portland, Oregon, had emptied his bank account in order to help his school cover the cost of Matt’s visit, he contacted the boy’s parents and tried to return the money. (They refused to take it.) It’s why, when a teenager in San Antonio with neck tattoos, a shaved head, and a bad name among adults sat rapt during Matt’s talk at his school — and afterward asked Matt to read his writing, which Matt said was beautiful, and ugly, and sad, and full of heart — Matt wrote about him on the acknowledgments page of his 2010 novel I Will Save You.

But all that came later. On the day I approached Matt, his career was just beginning. Sure, he said. He’d be happy to sit for an interview. I marveled at how friendly he was, how willing to help. I promised I’d be in touch sometime in the spring. We shook hands. I was elated.

And then when I got him on the phone the following summer, I was awkward. I had an advance reading copy of his 2009 novel We Were Here for reference on my desk alongside his first two novels, but I hadn’t yet learned how to develop a smooth arc for my questions. I fumbled with too many notes and too many flagged passages. I grew flustered. I worried that I was on the verge of botching the whole thing.

I shouldn’t have worried. Through all my fumblings, Matt listened, warmly and patiently. He encouraged me to relax. And when I finally got around to posing some decent questions, he gave candid and open-hearted answers.

de la peña novel array

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If you’ve been lucky enough to hear Matt speak at a conference, or host him in your school or library, you’ve probably heard bits and pieces of the story I first heard in that podcast interview. How he grew up in National City, a Southern California border town. How he knew he was poor, and resented it, because it made him feel less-than. How he felt torn between his father’s family, who is Mexican, and his mother’s, who is white. How he was a reluctant reader as a young child but became a teenager who wrote spoken word–style poems in the back of the classroom.

He embraced basketball because he knew it was his ticket to college. A professor handed him The Color Purple and made him promise to read it, and it was the first book he ever finished. That novel made him fall for literature, and he went on to earn his MFA, but only because a professor submitted application materials for him. He lived in L.A. for a time, and one day while riding the bus, he saw a kid sitting at a bus stop — headphones on, hood pulled up, holding a basketball in his lap — while people drove by in expensive cars. In a world of privilege, nobody looked at this kid, but Matt did. That moment was an act of witnessing. Later the kid became Sticky, the main character in Ball Don’t Lie, Matt’s first novel. Matt wanted readers to look at this kid for three hundred pages.

* * *

If Matt’s experiences growing up with a sense of feeling less-than, but also learning to be an observer of the world around him, and then learning to turn his observations into stories — if these experiences provided the seeds for Ball Don’t Lie and Matt’s subsequent novels, they also provided the seeds for Last Stop on Market Street.

In the story of CJ’s bus ride with Nana, we get another example of how Matt focuses his lens on people who are often overlooked by those in more privileged communities. We also watch how Matt uses the space of stories to pose difficult but necessary questions. Coming from CJ, the questions are innocent yet blunt: “How come we don’t got a car?” “How come it’s always so dirty over here?” Nana’s answers are firm but hopeful: they challenge CJ to see beauty and goodness in the world, especially in places where others see a lack. This is important for CJ as a character, and it’s important for the children who read his story — children who are like him, and children who are not like him. Through CJ’s story, we learn that there is always more than one way to see.

Similar questions are at stake in Matt’s novels, though they come with a harder edge. Older characters compel younger characters to open their eyes and grapple with their place in the world — and specifically within a society structured to keep them locked in a state of disadvantage. Some of Matt’s teen protagonists philosophize about the slow loss of hope that comes to envelop the hearts and minds of kids who grow up with less. Others wonder what to do with the feelings that accompany their awareness of poverty: should they feel ashamed or should they feel angry?

Younger readers of Last Stop on Market Street won’t be ready to ponder these questions until they’re older. But when they are ready, Matt’s novels will give them additional chances to learn how to see — and how to feel. With his books, readers can develop political clarity. And self-knowledge. And compassion. And empathy.

* * *

delapena_beuhlner_ncte Jennifer and Matt catching up in 2015 at NCTE. Photo: Scott Filkins.

I look back now on that serendipitous meeting in the Random House booth, and I mark it as an example of being in the right place at the right time. Matt and I started a conversation that day that led first to professional collaboration and eventually to friendship. In the eight years since, I’ve become accustomed to catching up with Matt annually wherever NCTE takes us. But last year our schedules pulled us in different directions. So when I stopped in the exhibit hall on Sunday morning and saw that the long line snaking through the Penguin Young Readers booth was in fact a line for Matt, and saw that the book he was signing was Last Stop on Market Street, I figured that a quick hello was worth the wait.

It was still two months before the Newbery would be announced, but Matt was in high demand. As the line inched closer, I caught a glimpse of him at the signing table, dressed in what I’ve come to think of as his conference uniform: the button-down shirt, untucked, with sleeves rolled up; the slouchy jeans; the black low-top Chuck Taylors. I observed how he warmly greeted each person in line. Just as I expected, when it was my turn to get his signature, we only had time for a quick hello. But there was an autographed copy of his book for me to look at later on. “To Jennifer,” it read. “You are an ultimate witness!”

Last Stop on Market Street. Illustration 2015 by Christian Robinson. Photo: Jennifer Buehler. Last Stop on Market Street. Illustration © 2015 by Christian Robinson. Photo: Jennifer Buehler.

Nice, I thought. And so fitting for the book’s theme. If Nana teaches CJ to be witness to what’s beautiful amidst dirt and broken streetlamps, then through his books Matt teaches readers to do the same. Through his stories, he teaches us to be witnesses, and to bear witness — not just to beauty in urban spaces, but to beauty in the lives of ordinary people who inhabit those spaces.

You are an ultimate witness, Matt wrote. It’s a statement to me, but it’s also a calling — for all of us. The call is to look outside ourselves and notice all there is in the world that’s worth witnessing, starting with those moments of human grace and dignity Matt has taught us to see. The call is also to take up those questions that young people are asking — questions that might make us uncomfortable, but that help us see our lives more clearly. In light of all this, the only remaining questions are what we will do — and how we will choose to live — in the wake of our witnessing.

Matt de la Peña is the winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal for Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Putnam). Read Matt de la Peña’s 2016 Newbery Medal acceptance speech. From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016.
Jennifer Buehler
Jennifer Buehler
Jennifer Buehler is an associate professor of education at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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