Matt de la Peña grew up in two very different parts of San Diego. First, in National City, where his family and friends and everyone he knew looked out for each other and took care of each other. Later, they moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, where he was closer to the ocean and got to know kids from families who were different from what he’d known.
“Sometimes, I get to visit schools in faraway towns and read them one of my books, to talk to them about what life was like, growing up in San Diego, and how San Diego is the inspiration for many of my stories,” he says.
Those stories have earned him a Newbery Medal, the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award, and a place on the New York Times Best Sellers list. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of the Pacific and his master’s from San Diego State University. His latest children’s book, “Patchwork,” illustrated by Corinna Luyken, encourages the twists and turns a child’s interests will take as they figure out what they like and who they want to be in life (the book will be available on Aug. 30).
De la Peña, 49, lives in San Diego’s Bird Rock neighborhood with his wife, Caroline, and their children Luna and Miguel. The author and speaker took some time to talk about his journey as a writer, how reading made him whole and allowed him to feel, and his commitment to telling kids the truth.
Q: Although you later moved to Cardiff, you grew up in National City. How did growing up there influence your voice and point of view as a writer, later in life?
A: I grew up in two very different parts of San Diego. National City was bustling and working class and gritty. My parents met at Sweetwater High School. They were teen parents, and everyone I knew lived in National City: my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends. For the first few years of my life, we lived in my Mexican grandmother’s house. Even after we moved to our own place, on Potomac Street, my grandma’s house was still the center of our lives. She was always making tortillas and tamales and chile colorado. We struggled at times, but so did everyone around us, and you got the sense that the community was looking out for you. National City left a huge impression on me. It has found its way into many of the books and essays I’ve written. Then, we moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, back when it was quiet and sleepy. We lived in an old house sandwiched between the freeway and a large stretch of greenhouses (that are now gone). I fell asleep to the sound of train whistles and the smell of the Pacific Ocean. My heartrate slowed. I met kids who surfed and had college-educated parents. I feel so fortunate to have known these two disparate and wonderful parts of San Diego. My voice as a writer is a strange melding of the two.
Q: In a 2013 essay you wrote for NPR, you mentioned reading your first novel all the way through after high school when a college professor handed you a copy of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” saying that she thought of you when she read it. You said it was the first book to make you feel emotional and had you on the verge of tears. I’m curious about how the conversation about the book went with that professor. What did she say about why reading it reminded her of you?
A: Going to college is still the single greatest accomplishment of my life. I went to the University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship, and I don’t think I woke up intellectually until I set foot on that campus. Like you said, one semester a favorite professor handed me a copy of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and suggested I read it, even though it wasn’t part of our curriculum. I’d never had a teacher pair me with a specific book before, so I was curious. Well, I found “The Color Purple” deeply moving, even life-changing, because it introduced me to the power of story.
Later, when I sat down with my professor to talk about the novel, she explained why she’d given it to me. She knew I had a chip on my shoulder about growing up with so much less than the other students at our small, private college. She felt the same way when she went to college, but she found that reading about characters who faced far greater adversities sort of put things into perspective. That’s exactly what the book had done for me. She also wanted me to see the transformative role that hope can play in a story; she thought it would benefit me as a person, but also as an aspiring writer. I remember leaving her office feeling so excited. It was the first time anyone had ever referred to me as a writer.
Q: What do you recall sharing about your impressions of the book back then?
A: I remember I was most inspired by the language. What at first seemed like broken English soon read like poetry. Back then, I assumed all “important” novels had to be written in the same highfalutin, “proper” prose. I was thrilled to see I was wrong.
What I love about Bird Rock …
Having lived in Brooklyn, New York, for 15 years, where it’s always so loud and packed with people, I adore the quiet of Bird Rock. I love that everything shuts down early. I love walking the quiet streets after dinner, looking at all of the pretty yards, and catching sight of the Pacific Ocean here and there.
Q: You went back to read the works of renowned Black female authors, including Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Ruth Forman. What was it about their work that you connected with at the time?
A: When you’re an inexperienced reader, you tend to stick with what’s working. After reading all of Alice Walker’s work, I found out that she was a fan of Zora Neale Hurston, so I moved onto Hurston’s work. And those two authors led me to Toni Morrison, who is one of my all-time favorite writers to this day. Black female authors are definitely the foundation of my life as a reader. These days, I’m a huge fan of Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson and Elizabeth Acevedo.
Q: In that same piece, you said that novels became your secret place where you were allowed to feel, especially coming from a culture where you felt like men and boys weren’t allowed to be perceived as soft or sensitive. When you later found works by Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz and Gabriel García Márquez, what did that add to what you were looking for from books?
A: It’s a powerful thing to see yourself in a story, to feel like a novel reflects your family’s lived experiences. That’s how I felt when I discovered books by other Latino authors. I must have read “The House on Mango Street,” by Sandra Cisneros, a dozen times. And when I first read “Drown,” by Junot Díaz, I remember thinking, “Wow, they actually publish stuff like this?” My own writing voice was in a similar vein, and I began to dream of one day publishing something of my own.
Q: You also said that reading was making you whole. Can you talk about what that looked and felt like for you?
A: I always thought literature was a world I simply didn’t belong to. Books were for the smart kids, the top students, the ones who would go on to fancy colleges. I was a basketball player. A half-Mexican, working-class kid. The men in my family worked with their hands. To live up to their example, I thought I had to steer clear of anything that might be deemed “too sensitive.” A lot of working-class boys grow up this way, but it leaves a hole inside your chest where emotion is supposed to be. When I finally became a reader, I found a secret place to “feel.” Literature became a personal journey for me, one that nobody else needed to know about. It felt good to experience a range of emotions through books. It made me feel whole.
Q: Your upcoming book, “Patchwork,” illustrated by Corinna Luyken, will be released on Aug. 30. Can you talk a bit about what the book is about and where the inspiration for this story came from?
A: I remember this one “dad” conversation I had back when I was still living in Brooklyn. I really liked the guy I was talking to, probably because he was into basketball as much as I was into basketball. On this particular morning, he was talking about his oldest daughter: “She’s an amazing kid,” he said, folding his arms, “but sometimes, she just seems a little lost, you know? Like she can’t figure out what her ‘thing’ is.” I nodded along, supportively. His oldest daughter was only 8, which seemed a tad young for this kind of concern, but what did I know about second-graders? My daughter was only 3.
Since then, I’ve found myself in dozens of similar conversations. Or, the flipside of that conversation, where a mom or dad is convinced they know exactly who their child is: “Maria, she’s my dancer,” “Leo’s my little engineer.” How many times, when introducing my daughter, have I led with some variation of, “She’s a HUGE reader” or “I can’t keep this one’s nose out of a novel”? Parents these days, why are we in such a hurry to label our own children? So, “Patchwork” is for all the “lost” kids out there. The ones who have yet to find their “thing.” Or, the ones who’ve managed to shrug off the over-eager categories we adults keep trying to push them into. “Patchwork” is for the kids who are too busy playing right about now. Experimenting. Following narrow trails that lead to dead ends. It’s for the kids who keep picking up instruments only to put them back down. I think Walt Whitman had it right when he famously declared, “I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes. That’s what makes each of our twisting, turning journeys so fascinating.
Q: Each child’s journey with their interests and passions in “Patchwork” also reminded me of issues that include support for transgender and gender non-conforming people, women in STEM, and community organizers and activists. What is it that you wanted to say in this work? To kids and to the adults in their lives?
A: I have a sheet of paper with a single sentence taped to the wall above my computer: “Do not write what you see. Write what will be seen.” My hope as a writer is that I’m able to lift up as many different kinds of people as I can. I want to always err on the side of inclusivity. And, yes, “Patchwork” follows a handful of individual characters, exploring how they might evolve over time, but there’s a bigger picture, too. All of our individual lives fit into the intricate patchwork of humanity, where no single path or identity is more beautiful or worthy than another.
Q: There seems to be this uptick in banning books, and even any discussions in classrooms, about race, LGBTQ identity and relationships, and issues related to gender. One of your young adult novels, “Mexican WhiteBoy,” was temporarily banned in an Arizona school district, and you’ve also talked about managing the balance between preserving children’s innocence and telling them the truth. How are you thinking about this balance within this context of a desire to completely shield children from any mention of subjects that some adults find uncomfortable?
A: I love this question because it gets to the heart of something I’m always grappling with: What is the job of the writer for the very young? To tell the truth or preserve innocence? To be clear, each parent has to make a similar determination for their own family. As a writer, though, I’ve decided to lean toward the truth. Kids are so much more sophisticated than we give them credit for, and they’re hungry for information. If a kid isn’t ready for a deeper topic in a book, she will usually find a different entry point. She will engage with a book on her terms. It breaks my heart whenever I hear about a book getting banned. So often, it’s a faction of a community acting out of fear or fundamentalism. Or both. I accept an individual making the decision to not read a book, or to keep it out of their own home, because it makes them feel uncomfortable or doesn’t align with their belief system. (Sadly, many adults only read books that reinforce their own ideology). But I don’t understand why an individual would try to determine access to that particular book for the rest of a community.
Q: In your acceptance speech for your 2016 Newbery Medal for “Last Stop Before Market Street,” illustrated by Caldecott winner Christian Robinson, you talk about how you were the kind of kid who didn’t have your nose in a book, but who read moods and the silences between people, the narrative in the articles of “Basketball Digest.” You said that you want to write books that help kids like yourself have that secret place to feel. What kind of difference do you think having that secret, safe place to feel, makes for children and the adults we become?
A: Life comes at us so fast these days. We all have phones that give us access to an endless flow of information. The news cycle is relentless. There’s always a fresh batch of social media posts to scroll through. Movies, TV shows and video games are often big and loud and irresistible. Books give us an opportunity to slow down. When we read a novel, we are gradually building the story (alongside the writer) word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. We are doing half the work, which gives us time to think our way through the story.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work as an author?
A: I think all artists struggle with self-doubt. When you first come up with a new story idea, it’s exhilarating, but you’re never able to quite realize that initial inspiration. That’s really frustrating. I find it hard to read any of my books after they’re published. All I see are the flaws and I want to get back in there and fix them.
Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?
A: It still blows me away whenever I meet someone who has read one of my books. Or when I get an email or letter from a reader. Sometimes, I get to visit schools in faraway towns and read them one of my books, to talk to them about what life was like, growing up in San Diego, and how San Diego is the inspiration for many of my stories.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: I’ve learned that I can be a very disciplined person. There are some truly brilliant writers out there, people who can churn out beautiful, innovative books in only a few drafts. I’m not one of them. I have to work really, really hard to create something good. Luckily, I’m happy to do the work.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Kate DiCamillo, an author I greatly admire, once told me that the main job of the children’s book writer is to love the world.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I don’t know how to swim.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Ah, this is good. I wake up early, do a couple hours of writing at Bird Rock Coffee, and then I scoop up the family and we drive up to Solana Beach to have breakfast at Claire’s. We cross the train tracks, and the 101, and spend a few hours at the beach where I help my son dig holes and hop waves with my wife and daughter. Then, we drive back down to our house and nap together.