Did you know that the prestigious John Newbery Medal for children’s literature given to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” was awarded this year for first time to a Latino author?
I was thrilled when I recognized Matt de la Peña’s name as the winning author for his picture book, “Last Stop On Market Street. It tells the story of CJ, a little boy who rides the city bus with his grandma and wonders why their family doesn’t have a car. The breathtaking pictures and the simple story do a great job at introducing children to socio-economic issues that some may be unfamiliar with while others may identify with.
To deeply understand Matt de la Peña’s books, readers need to know where he comes from and how it affects his writing. The experiences of growing up by the Mexican border as a mixed-race or bicultural boy inspire the stories of his books greatly. One of the things that I enjoy about the author’s books is how he features characters and settings of communities that are under-represented in the publishing world, sparking great discussions about diversity and inclusion.
“Today when I write my own novels, I try to craft the best possible stories, and I certainly aim to be entertaining, but I’m also conscious of the powerful function literature can serve — especially in the lives of kids growing up the way I did.” (Source)
A week ago I attended one of Matt de la Peña’s presentations where he graciously shared some meaningful moments from his childhood that defined him and inspires his writing today. As a Latina myself and a mother trying to raise bilingual and bicultural children, I found Matt de la Peña’s experiences thought-provoking and inspirational.
Read glimpses of the author’s life and keep them in mind next time you read one of his books.
- “The concept of attending college was foreign.” Matt grew up by the Mexican border in a town called National City with hard-working and very loyal people but without any education. His dad was seventeen-years old when he had to dropped out from highschool after Matt’s mom got pregnant.
- “There was a language confusion” Being bilingual was not seen as an advantage so speaking Spanish was very discouraged. His dad thought that speaking English correctly would benefit his children’s future more than learning to speak a second language.
- “The hardest definition to free from is self-definition.” When Matt de la Peña was in second grade, he struggled to read at grade level so he was held back. That experience shattered his confidence and contributed to view himself as an, “unitelligent person,” that idea stuck with him for a long time and was very difficult to overcome.
- “Literature is the acquisition of possibilities” Nobody in his family read so he was not exposed to books at an early age. This made him into a reluctant reader who only read one book throughout highschool. “The House on Mango Street” by Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros, which was the first book that Matt de la Peña read cover to cover.
- “Even in the harshest and ugliest of circumstances, there’s still hope.” His college professor suggested him to read The Color Purple, the novel provided him a safe place to feel and inspired him to read more.
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