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Award-winning author inspires love for reading at Mariner


October 19, 2016

Children’s book author Matt de la Peña, who recently visited Mariner High School, won a Newbery Medal this year for his picture book “Last Stop on Market Street.”

When Matt de la Peña visited Mariner High School, he met the characters in his books.

The author of six young adult novels and two picture books, de la Peña spoke to students at Mariner Oct. 4 about growing up as a reluctant reader and how a newfound love for reading led to his career as a writer.

Most of his books, including “Ball Don’t Lie” and “Mexican WhiteBoy,” feature mixed-race, working-class characters not unlike himself. de la Peña spent his childhood near San Diego and the Mexican border, the son of a white mother and a Mexican father.

“The kids at Mariner are pretty much the characters in my books,” de la Peña said. “The main characters are from diverse, working-class neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, and there was a similar demographic at the school. I try to write books about kids just like them.”

He was held back in second grade because he struggled with reading. It shattered his confidence and made him think he was stupid, so he avoided books all through middle and high school.

Even though he was a reluctant reader, he found himself writing spoken-word-style poems that he never shared: They were mostly about girls, his neighborhood and what it was like to grow up racially mixed.

He didn’t finish reading a novel until he was attending the University of the Pacific on a full-ride basketball scholarship. He was too caught up in “playing ball and running with the fellas” to read.

But then a professor of his made him promise to read “The Color Purple.” He fell in love.

“As a self-proclaimed reluctant reader, I didn’t think books were for me,” he said. “I had a tough dad, I played sports. I didn’t realize there were all these other books that are outside of what was assigned reading in school. It wasn’t until college that I found books that spoke to me.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree, de la Peña transferred to San Diego State University where he received a master’s degree in creative writing. Not only did he love books, he was going to write them.

“I talk about the powerful function literature can serve, especially in the lives of kids growing up the way I did,” he said. “My goal as a writer is to help them feel an emotional connection to the characters in my books and realize they don’t have to be valedictorian of their high school to become an author.”

de la Peña, of Brooklyn, N.Y., has won awards for five of his books, including the Newbery Medal for the picture book “Last Stop on Market Street.” His other young adult books are “We Were Here,” “I Will Save You,” “The Hunted” and “The Living.”

“When Matt found out that he received the Newbery Medal, his essay "Sometimes the 'Tough Teen' is Quietly Writing Stories,” which was featured on NPR, resurfaced on Twitter,” said Stephanie Wilson, the teacher-librarian at Mariner.

“When I read it, I was moved by how many parallels the article had to our many students at Mariner coming from diverse backgrounds, and those who struggle at school, and those who find solace and refuge in writing or some other academic niche.”

After Wilson forwarded the essay to the principal, he pulled her into his office and told her to bring de la Peña to the school.

He is not the first and he won’t be the last author the teacher-librarian will invite to Mariner in her career. With each author’s visit, Wilson said students are inspired to read and write more.

She and de la Peña share that goal.

“Matt de la Peña not only had that impact with the students at Mariner, he left them with hope,” she said. “He left students inspired that they can be successful outside the walls of Mariner.”

Mariner junior Madison Lewis talked with de la Peña as he was signing books for students and teachers.

She told him that she had stopped working on a short story of hers because she was suffering from writer’s block. She asked him for advice.

The author told her his secret: Never look at the “big picture” when writing a story.

He opened up one of his books and showed her a paragraph that took him all day to write.

Here’s how de la Peña explained it to her: He allows himself to zero in on the smallest details when writing, so that he never gets stuck. He doesn’t figure out what the book is about, he doesn’t write the title until he’s done. He just writes.

Afterward, Madison apologized that she didn’t have the money to buy one of his novels.

So de la Peña offered her a trade: If she brought him a McDonald’s vanilla milkshake to his next event, a book reading and signing at the Mill Creek University Book Store, he would buy her one of his books.

It was a deal.

Madison, who works at McDonald’s, didn’t know whether de la Peña liked caramel syrup in his milkshake, so she brought him two – one with caramel, and one without.

Since she had two milkshakes for him, the author bought and signed two novels for her – “We Were Here” (his favorite of his books) and “I Will Save You” (one that will make her cry).

Matt de la Peña

“I had abandoned my writing because I didn’t know how to continue the story,” Madison said. “There was just so much material in my head.

“When he told me to focus on one thing, one scene at a time, it really, really helped me. I have written more in three weeks than I did in six months. It’s crazy how it’s coming along.”

Madison is currently reading de la Peña’s “I Will Save You,” about an unexpectedly orphaned teenager who runs away to a beach camp to escape his troubles.

She was hooked by the third page.


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