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Interview: Matt de la Peña on Diversity in Children’s Literature

Interview: Matt de la Peña on Diversity in Children’s Literature

Last-Stop-MedalsFor the first time ever, a picture book won the 2016 Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year.” Also for the first time, a Hispanic writer took home the award—Brooklyn’s Matt de la Peña, author of Last Stop of Market Street. Illustrated by Christian Robinson, it’s the story of an African-American boy and his grandmother finding beauty in their surroundings as they ride a bus through a gritty cityscape.

As the We Need Diverse Books campaign continues to make great strides in the world of children’s literature, we spoke with De la Peña about writing books that reflect his mixed-race experience, and the need for diversity in literature.

The recent Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey coupled hard facts with little surprise that diversity in the publishing industry is not reflective of our society. Do you feel Last Stop on Market Street winning the Newbery Medal is providing more attention to the impact diversity in literature can have on even the youngest readers?

I agree that the results of Lee & Low’s diversity survey are hardly surprising. And it’s worrisome on many levels. It makes me think of an experience I recently had in Minneapolis. I was brought out to be one of the featured speakers at a well-respected teen book festival. The organizers had the great idea of having me come in a day early to speak at several teen detention centers and prisons. I met hundreds of residents that day, and I noted that 99% of them were brown (African American, Native, Latino, etc). Conversely, the massive crowd I encountered at the teen book festival the following day was 99% white.

This contrast hit me hard. Maybe there’s no direct connection, but it made me think of something I once heard Junot Diaz say at a conference. He was talking about growing up a comic book fan. He noticed a trope present in many of the stories. The monsters couldn’t see themselves in a mirror. Maybe we create occasional monsters in our inner cities when we fail to show these kids a reflection of themselves in literature. I do hope that the acclaim Last Stop has received (still mind-blowing!) makes an impact. It’s important to see yourself in a book, but maybe it’s a next-level experience to see yourself in a book that has a shiny Newbery sticker on the cover.

matt_sidbrWhat kind of stories do think your current young readers of Last Stop on Market Street will be reading to their children? Do you see change in diversity in literature in the long-term?

I think major change is inevitable. There will be far more stories featuring “diverse” characters because that is what the changing marketplace will demand. If the industry doesn’t change it will no longer be viable. I just wish the industry would shift before its hand is forced. I’d also like to say, I’m not advocating for diverse books instead of books featuring suburban white kids. I’m advocating for diverse books alongside of books featuring suburban white kids. How amazing would it be to have bookstore choices that reflected the current population?

You do a lot of school visits, yet you have spoken about not becoming an avid reader until a bit later in life yourself. What impression do you feel having books introduced to a young child’s life has?

I love going into schools and talking about the power of books. Growing up as a reluctant reader myself, I understand the barrier some kids perceive between themselves and the written word. I acknowledge this barrier. Reading a book is hard work, especially if you have very little experience with the process. I encourage young people to give a book forty pages. Some of the best books they will ever read will start off feeling uncomfortable. Many students have never heard anyone say this before. But more importantly, books can give kids a secret place to feel. If you grow up in a machismo environment like I did, you need to have a place to feel in order to be whole. The earlier kids understand the power of literature, the more likely they are to be well-rounded, empathetic teens and adults.

CJ and Nana experience the city through so many of the five senses. How do you accomplish providing such a wide-ranging experience in so few words?

For me a picture book is really a spoken word poem. First I spend a long time getting the story down – the journey, both inside and out. At the end of this stage, the book is usually way too long. So I have to spend a lot of time pairing it down to what’s essential. Then I try to make it come alive using powerful language and sensory details. The final stage is my favorite: I make several passes trying to turn the language into music. You’d think a picture book would take a fraction of the time it takes to write a novel. But that’s not the case. To write a good (or even great) picture book, you have to revise it over and over and over. By the time I produce a draft that’s ready to go to the illustrator, I’ve usually gone through fifty or sixty drafts.

See Also

You’ve spoken previously about your next picture book project, Carmela Full of Wishes. Can you share more about this—in particular creating a story with a female protagonist, which some argue there aren’t enough of in children’s books?

I’m so incredibly excited about Carmela Full of Wishes. It’s set in an agricultural environment. I lived right next to a huge stretch of greenhouses when I was in high school, and there’s something really unique about the sights and sounds and smells of this environment. I also wanted readers to get to know this charismatic little Hispanic girl in a time when presidential candidates are talking about building walls. And finally, one of the most important ways in which I’ve grown as a writer over the past ten years is my ability to flesh out female characters. Carmela is the next step. She’s my first female protagonist. I couldn’t be more proud of this little story.

CJ, Nana, and friends have a beautiful bus ride, but we all know that sometimes public transportation in a big city is a challenge. Do you have any personal disaster stories?

I lived in Los Angeles for four years without a car. That’s a lot of time on the Big Blue Bus. And public transportation in LA is a lot different than public transportation in New York City. In NY, you’re surrounded by every walk of life. An important CEO is sitting right next to a construction worker. In LA it’s different. Only working class people ride the bus. Which is really interesting to me. There were definitely several disasters over the course of those four years, but I loved my fellow bus riders.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Published January 8, 2015
ISBN 9780399257742

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