Author Matt de la Peña did not own a book until he was 13 years old.
Growing up in a working-class family with a Mexican father who did not graduate high school and a white mother who grew up in foster care and did not go to college had its challenges, de la Peña said. But none of them stopped him from becoming a best-selling, multi-award-winning author of books for both young adults and children.
Visiting with kindergartners and first graders at Todd Elementary School recently, de la Peña shared his personal background, behind-the-scenes secrets of creating a picture book and advice to writers.
He began the visit by showing students a photo of his grandparents who came to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico.
“I like to begin my school visits by showing their photo to honor them,” he said. “Because of them, I am an American and I am proud to call myself an American author.”
De la Peña shared that he lives in California and has two children. He also shared that one of most inspirational moments of his life was when he heard Maya Angelou speak at a bookstore.
He read to the kindergartners and some of the first graders his best-selling book “Last Stop on Market Street,” which won many awards, including the Newbery Medal. De la Peña is the first Hispanic American author to win this medal.
When he met with a group of first graders later in the day, he opted to read to them his picture book “Love” instead of “Last Stop on Market Street.”
“I usually read this book to students in grades second and third because it is more of an abstract book and younger students cannot always grasp the concepts yet, but this is a high-level school,” he said.
Prior to reading the book, de la Peña asked students to make observations about some of the artwork in it.
“When you read a book you also read pictures,” he told the students and asked them what they noticed.
Students pointed out their observations and de la Peña also showed them how the book’s illustrator, Loren Long, came up with some of his ideas.
After the reading, students were able to ask him questions. They asked how many years he had been a writer, to which he responded that he had been writing for many years.
“Publishing a book doesn’t make you a writer; writing a book makes you a writer,” he said. “Even before my books were published I thought of myself as a writer.”
Another student wanted to know if writing was hard.
“Anything that is cool to do is hard,” he said. “There are really fun moments and really challenging moments. You have to have thick skin when you do art, because not everyone is going to love everything you do. You have to get over criticism and understand that it is just a part of your job. [Basketball superstar] Charles Barkley once said at a reading event ‘If everybody likes you, you are lying to someone.’”
De la Peña shared with the students that not all of the books that he had written were published.
“Those books were not good enough to be published, but I always learn something from writing them, and I sometimes steal a character from them for another book,” he said.
According to de la Peña, ideas for books come from real-life.
“Inspiration comes to me from things I have seen and where I grew up,” he said. “I grew up taking the bus everywhere in San Diego, and that inspired me to write “Last Stop on Market Street.”