Matt de la Peña is the author of four critically-acclaimed young adult novels (BALL DON'T LIE, MEXICAN WHITEBOY, WE WERE HERE and I WILL SAVE YOU, which was released in paperback earlier this week) and one picture book (A NATION’S HOPE: THE STORY OF BOXING LEGEND JOE LOUIS, illustrated by Kadir Nelson). 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 athletic scholarship for basketball. De la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. He teaches creative writing at NYU and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country. Protagonists in two of your books, WE WERE HERE and I WILL SAVE YOU, live in group homes. You’ve also worked in a group home yourself. What makes this such fertile ground for your writing?
I grew up with some pretty “shady” characters. Basketball is like that. And basketball was my ticket to college. So I was immersed in that world from 12 to 24.
When I came out of it, though, I was able to see it better. And the thing that struck me most was that a lot of these kids who were “bad,” the ones who people were scared of, deep down they were just ordinary kids with ordinary insecurities and moments of dorkiness. But the world set them up as “tough” and “at-risk,” and they learned early on how to play that role to their advantage.
It was a little different when I worked at a group home. I remember a few times I was like, “Man, this kid is just bad, he’s evil.” But then I’d read the kid’s file when everybody was asleep, and I’d learn about the impossible things the kid had been through before the age of 14. And then I’d watch him more closely, and I’d still see glimpses of insecurity and dorkiness. He just hid it a little better than the guys on my hoop squad. It was his way of protecting himself.
When I started writing in this world, I looked at it like this: there are some kids out there that might be quick to beat your ass or lift your wallet or snatch your purse. Yep, these guys are out there. But if you read one of my books, you’re gonna also find out who stole their heart when they were 7. And I think these kids’ lives are just as beautiful as the lives of any other kid. Your books often deal with issues of class. In I WILL SAVE YOU, for example, there’s the tension that arises between group home resident, Kidd, and Olivia, who comes from a wealthy family. What do you find compelling about these intersections of class in American society?
I was a scholarship kid at a private college. The kids I met came from very wealthy families. I didn’t. Yet we were at the same school, hanging out together at the same parties, sitting next to each other in the same psych class. I was fascinated by our different backgrounds. Sometimes a girl would invite me to eat at her sorority, and I’d sit there thinking, “How the hell did I get here?”
Other times I’d have a real chip on my shoulder. I worried that deep down people thought they were better than me. Yeah, we were all laughing together and goofing off, but maybe if you got past the surface there was something that separated us. See, now I’m hitting on my own insecurities.
I remember one girl I dated in college who came from serious money. The first time I visited her dorm I was drawn to a framed painting on her wall. Two down-and-out black folks drinking wine at a broken-down porch table. It felt weird that she had them on her wall. Framed. It bothered me for some reason. But I didn’t exactly understand why. Maybe I’ve been trying to figure out that feeling ever since. And maybe I’m secretly hoping one of these class intersections I set up in fiction will help. Several of your titles have been selected as YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. Why do you think your novels connect with this audience in particular?
Takes one to know one? I was a big reluctant reader when I was in high school. CATCHER IN THE RYE? Shoot, I’d rather be out there playing ball or flirting with girls at the beach. It wasn’t until I read books like THE COLOR PURPLE and HOUSE ON MANGO STREET that I found a heartbeat in literature.
I think a lot of artists try to make things that would appeal to themselves. I probably do that with my books. I like to be real and honest and talk regular, like you hear on the street, and get to the good stuff right away. But secretly I’m also planting things that maybe will make a non-reader FEEL something. Sometimes it works! Some of your stories deal with characters with violent pasts. What have you heard from teachers regarding student reaction to your books in the classroom?
I’ve heard some teachers say they simply have to avoid my books in terms of the classroom. And I respect that. It’s different at every school. I’ve also heard from teachers who use my books in the curriculum. And it seems to engage the students because the books meet them in their own neighborhoods.
I think every writer has to make a decision: what’s more important to me, being embraced by the Scholastic Book Club (man, that would be cool!) or having a notoriously aloof student in a tough middle school or high school pick up the book and read a few pages and think, "This is how it really is." So far I’ve chosen the latter. I just wanna make good books about kids on the “wrong side of the tracks.” And I’ve been incredibly lucky to have teachers and librarians who want to put my books in kids’ hands. Which is the only reason I have a career. You published your first picture book earlier this year, A NATION’S HOPE: THE STORY OF BOXING LEGEND JOE LOUIS. What inspired you to write for younger readers?
[Artist and illustrator] Kadir Nelson. I’d long been a fan of his work. And when I found out I’d have the chance to work with him, I dug in. And it felt like going back to my roots in a way. I started out writing a lot of spoken word, street-style poetry. But my poems ran too long and they evolved into longer works of prose. But I love language and sounds and rhythms. A NATION'S HOPE gave me a chance to go back to economical rhythm-based storytelling. I loved it.
And now I’m hooked. I just finished a picture book called LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET which will be released by Penguin in 2013. The illustrator is an incredibly talented new guy named Christian Robinson. He has a few projects set to come out actually, and I believe people are going to fall in love with his work.
© 2011 Matt de la Peña. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. 5 Questions With... Rebecca Stead (LIAR & SPY) 5 Questions With... Rob Buyea (MR. TERUPT FALLS AGAIN)