Matt De La Pena's Newbery Acceptance Speech Will Bring You To Tears
Author Matt de la Peña has spent his career writing for the kid in the "back of an auditorium" — the kid who too often gets ignored, the kid who no one believes could really be a reader, the kids who isn't given a space to feel or think freely. At this year's American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, de la Peña gave a moving speech about the importance of writing books for that kid while accepting the 2016 Newbery Medal for his acclaimed children's book, Last Stop On Market Street.
De la Peña, the author of Mexican WhiteBoy, Ball Don't Lie, and more, began by revealing a startling truth to the audience: he didn't spend his childhood as a "reader" in the traditional sense. A self-professed "half-Mexican hoop head," he eschewed classics like The Catcher In The Rye and War and Peace in favor of basketball magazines, which he would read cover to cover, month after month. He told himself he read them for the sports, for the stats, but he now admits he read them for the "narrative" all along.
In college, he fell in love with lit when he was exposed to works like The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Drown by Junot Diaz — incredible works by incredible authors of color. Works that often get ignored in high school curriculums.
"When I finally fell for literature, I fell hard." he said. "But what if I can nudge a few of these kids toward the magic of books at a younger age? What if I can write a story that offers that tough, hoodied kid in the back of the auditorium a secret place to feel?"
De la Peña understands all-too-well the social norms and systems that prevent some kids from picking up books. He said he was proud to see his YA novels — many of which tackle issues of race, class, and ethnicity — at schools with diverse populations, but he lamented that his books were hard to find in more affluent schools.
"And why was it so common to see a class full of Mexican kids reading The Great Gatsby when I almost never saw a class of white kids reading Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass?"
With that in mind, he aimed to release a book that addressed class and race without focusing on those issues overtly. So he wrote Last Stop On Market Street, a book about a young boy, CJ, who lives in a poor neighborhood but learns to see the beauty in all that's around him with the help of his grandmother. Without being a quote-unquote issue book, Last Stop manages to impart an important message: all children are worthy, and they deserve to see themselves as worthy. And that means we need more books where children of all backgrounds are represented and portrayed as worthy.
Matt de la Peña's speech highlights two important issues in publishing today: 1) the lack of diverse representation within novels, and 2) the tendency to assign novels with characters from backgrounds that aren't the "norm" to the "diverse" shelf. All kids deserve to see themselves and their experiences reflected back to them in literature, and all kids should be reading about experiences and people different from themselves.
To read Matt de la Peña's moving acceptance in full, visit The Horn Book.