Matt de la Peña: Writing From the Outside

If I had to choose a few books that should be in every K-12 classroom, I think one of them would be Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. It’s an important book on many levels, conveying messages about gratitude, cultural awareness, and diversity.

So I was felt fortunate to hear Matt de la Peña speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention this past weekend. If I could summarize his session, in which he spoke about his journey as an author, it would be “writing from the outside”.

The author’s father is Mexican and his mother is white. He shared how growing up, he had to code-switch a lot between the two families to feel a greater sense of belonging within each. This paradox influenced de la Peña’s work. Instead of trying to simplify the topics he wants to write about, he leans into these complexities and describes what it is like to live between two worlds.

For example, in Last Stop on Market Street, the author highlights the ways people are diverse beyond the color of one’s skin. CJ learns while riding the bus that a blind man can see with his other senses. As de la Peña noted during his session:

Diversity goes beyond just race. We need to examine our thinking about this concept, such as seeing one’s class status or disability in a new way.

As the author read aloud and shared about his books, he also explained how he can write about complex issues within the small window of a picture book.

The more you can simplify, the more you can do with a book. For example, CJ sees the people in the soup kitchen and he associates the service with them.

Related, in another picture book he wrote, Love, de la Peña explained how the story and illustrations move from a familiar idea of the title’s name to a more nuanced understanding that helps the reader build perspective.

You can’t know love if you also don’t know adversity.

The author also has several acclaimed young adult novels. I’m not familiar with these titles, but after listening to Matt de la Peña speak, I am looking forward to reading some of them with my own kids as they approach adolescence.

And I believe that is an important, final point to make. The author shared an observation after having visited schools in both affluent/mostly white communities and in more diverse areas. In the former, it was rare to find many of his books in the school libraries that depicted different cultures. “We just don’t have many kids who look like that in our school,” shared one librarian. Given the frequency he sees the Harry Potter series in schools, he wondered aloud during the session if these schools have a lot of wizards.

In other words, literature should be diverse because we need to introduce our students to different perspectives, ways of being, and how the world actually is. Authors like Matt de la Peña who write from the outside and embrace life’s paradoxes serve to complicate our understanding of the world in important ways.