Matt de la Peña grew up seeing the world through the eyes of a boy struggling with identity.
His family moved from National City, Calif., a working class neighborhood bathed in the values of machismo, to Encinitas looking for a fresh start for de la Peña who had been getting into trouble at school.
“I loved San Dieguito because it was the opposite of where I had come from,” de la Peña said. “It was so calm and everybody, from the first time I met them, was talking about college.”
At San Dieguito, de la Peña was known as a basketball player, eventually earning a scholarship to play at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. He wrote, but he kept his words to himself.
“Throughout high school, I liked to write spoken word poetry that I showed to nobody,” de la Peña said. “It was mostly stuff about my old neighborhood and what it was like to be in a new neighborhood; it was about growing up mixed race, things like that.”
Now an accomplished young adult author, de la Peña has continued to explore these themes. In January, he was named the Newbery Medal winner of 2016 for his picture book, “Last Stop on Market Street.”
Last week, he visited San Diego State University, where he attended graduate school, to speak about his journey of becoming the first Latino male author to win a Newbery Medal, which is considered an Academy Award in the world of children’s literature.
“It’s very complex I think,” de la Peña said. “The thing I’m most excited about is [going] to schools and [being] an example to young Hispanic males that maybe think writing isn’t for them and books aren’t for them, [saying] that here’s a place for us in this world too.”
“Last Stop on Market Street” tells the story of a small boy named CJ and his grandmother. CJ’s grandmother shows him the good in things as he questions the world around him.
“The book is really about the grandmother teaching the grandson to see himself as beautiful,” de la Peña said. “It’s you’re beautiful and worthy and she’s using the context to show him that.”
When de la Peña first came up with CJ’s story, he focused mainly on CJ’s nontraditional family. Although his published piece does not dwell greatly on that part of CJ’s life, it is still evident.
“Nobody would know this except me, but it’s when he has a dream sequence. He says he saw a family of hawks slicing through the sky,” de la Peña said. “So that’s the traditional family he’s dreaming about, that’s a call out to where his heart is and what he’s wondering about.”
De la Peña emphasized the importance of diversity in books.
“Now there’s the Newbery Sticker right next to CJ’s picture on the bus. So that’s pretty cool,” he said. “I think maybe a girl that’s four or five right now is less likely to have ill feelings about being Hispanic [or black] because what’s being reflected at her is a little bit more in tune with the population, not totally yet, but it’s getting there.”
Before his talk, he held a meet and greet with students from local high schools. A student from High Tech High International commented on the idea of beauty, which he explores in “Last Stop on Market Street.”
“[Growing up] as a kid, I saw beauty as the color of your skin, which was always white,” she said. “It was always Caucasian kids [in books and TV] growing up. That’s why I never really felt beautiful. [I felt
like] I didn’t want to be Latina.”
These themes are especially important to de la Peña in light of the issues surfacing with the coming election.
“Some politicians are talking about building walls to keep people out,” he said. “How cool is it that there are some books that are reflecting the people who some people want gone.”