Matt de la Pena is very much looking forward to visiting Iowa when he makes a stop in Cedar Rapids at 7 p.m. Friday as the second author in the OutLoud! Author Series presented by the Metro Library Network.
That’s because the New York Times best-selling and Newbery Medal winning author’s next book was partially inspired by a previous visit to the state.
“I’m actually revising a book right now that comes out next year and it takes place in California, New York and Iowa,” he said. “It’s actually set in Iowa for like 70 pages.”
De la Pena explained that while on a school visit to Cedar Falls two years ago he spent three extra days in the state thanks to canceled flights. “I got stranded in Cedar Falls for three extra days ... and I just wandered around Iowa. It made me think that I’ve got to write a book that crosses through Iowa. And it feels special to be coming back to Iowa now.”
De la Pena is the author of some 15 books, mostly written for young adults, including “Ball Don’t Lie,” “Mexican Whiteboy,” “The Living” and “The Hunted.” “I’m super excited to write about working class people and tell working class stories,” he said. “That’s how I grew up and I feel like there are not enough stories about people growing up with less.”
Of course, he’s been in the news most recently thanks to receiving the 2016 Newbery Medal for his picture book “Last Stop on Market Street.” The moving story tells of the bus ride journey of young CJ and his grandma across town after church one Sunday.
“There were a couple of ideas floating around in my head and I didn’t know if they were going to be young adult middle grade or something else,” de la Pena said of coming up with the book idea. “But sometimes I visit tougher schools and I find this weird question that will come to me at about half of them. A kid from an underprivileged school will ask ‘Why would you come here?’ In other words, he’s saying his school is not worthy and they aren’t worthy of an author visit. I wanted to attack that — like who’s worthy and what does it mean to be worthy.”
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“In the story a lot of people focus on the fact that the grandmother is teaching her grandson how to see his world as beautiful,” he added. “But really, in my mind at least, she is trying to teach him how to see himself as beautiful using the context around him.”
“And another thing that is a little quieter, but I wanted to explore was a kid growing up in a non-traditional family and also to have a story featuring an African American kid that’s not about the Civil War or the Underground Railroad. I just wanted it to be a contemporary story.”
De la Pena admitted that he’s as shocked about winning the Newbery Medal as so many others were that a picture book won this prestigious children’s literature honor. “It was probably the most shocking thing I could have heard,” he said, noting that his phone rang one day and it was the chair of the Newbery committee calling. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy must have been drinking because he said the wrong words.’ I didn’t even think picture books were eligible. It was overwhelming, and I was so moved by it.”
Given a few days to reflect, de le Pena said the award is one that makes him especially proud. “First of all, I love that picture books will now have a chance to be part of the conversation leading up to the Newbery each year. And then the second thing is that when I found out, I was the first Latino to win the Newbery I felt so incredibly proud of that. It was really a cool moment.”
Like many authors, de la Pena enjoys the connections that author events provide. “I just think it’s so fun to interact with people,” he said. “It’s cool to meet people who have read your work. But I think it’s even more exciting to meet people who you get a chance to introduce your work to.”
Given that he mostly writes for kids and young adults, de la Pena said he looks forward to seeing them in the audience at his talk as well. “I love having kids in the audience. It gives me a chance to do what I would do at a school visit which is to talk a little about the process and maybe some secret things about the picture book in particular.”
“And especially when I am talking about my young adult books, I focus on my own path to literacy,” he added. “I was a reluctant reader and I didn’t fall for literature until I was in college. I talk about where I come from, what I was into while I was young, growing up in a family where no one had been to college before. I think what that does for reluctant readers is expose them to someone who understands what it means to feel uncomfortable with books.”
“But you can do a deeper dive with adults,” he said, noting that he likes that grown ups will be attending too. “I think the key to writing a good picture book is the same as the key to having a good event with a mixed audience. You have to appeal to two different audiences at the same time. It’s a challenge and it’s actually very fun.”
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Given all his published works and the speaking de la Pena does each year at schools around the country, it’s a challenge that he certainly seems up for.
If you go
What: OutLoud! Author Series presents Matt de la Pena
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: The The Hotel at Kirkwood Center Center, 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids
Cost: Free, but register at http://metrolibrarynetwork.org/outloud/