The Amazing Matt de la Peña

I am still feeling grateful to the fabulous Karin Michel, Chapel Hill Library’s Children’s Book Librarian Extraordinaire who turned me onto the magic that is Matt de la Peña! If you’ve been blown away by John Green’s Nerdfighters triumphs…the link at the end of this column (published February 8th by the Chapel Hill Herald) is a must read!

A writer young adults can count on

Adult readers may wait out slow starts or overlook overwriting; not younger readers. They demand strong characters, quick-moving plots, authentic dialogue and stories that stay with you after you close the covers. Reluctant readers are even harsher critics. Matt de la Peña is a writer that young adults can count on.

I just finished listening to the audio version of his newest novel, The Living (book from Delacorte; audio from Brilliance, seven hours; for ages 12 and up) which won a 2014 Belpré Author Honor Award. Whether they choose book or audio, even reticent readers will be captivated.

The hero is Shy Espinoza, an attentive employee of a cruise line who works hard to support his family.  He’s on a ship headed to Hawaii when he comes across a strange passenger he later calls “the comb-over man.” “Do me a favor kid,” the man says, “Remember this cowardly face, it’s what corruption looks like. … How am I supposed to live with that?”

As Shy contemplates why the man would try for such an “aggressive comb-over,” “he sees a blur climb over the railing.” Despite his speedy rescue attempt, the strange man drowns and Shy is haunted by his death and final words.

This compelling opening is followed by a slew of dramatic plot twists. On Shy’s next cruise, a mysterious man tails him and soon after Shy learns his adored nephew has been struck by the same deadly virus that killed his grandmother. Aboard ship his attempts to woo a young woman who’s already engaged are less than successful, not to mention the bigotry this Mexican-American boy faces from snotty teens.

What could happen to increase the tension? How about a tsunami that sinks the luxury liner? Unbelievably the plot gains speed even more speed as it combines mystery, adventure and suspense right up to the cliffhanger finale. The hero’s feelings are so genuine, his attempts at righting wrongs so human that the book is not a mere conglomeration of wild events, but a careful weaving of subplots with a hero who is far from a caricature.

In terms of the audio, Henry Leyva does a perfect job of dramatizing Shy. In his portrayal he delicately balances teenage ’tude, with the palpable gut fear that propels Shy into action. In parts of the book, Levya’s reading reflects the longing that comes from poverty and loss. Levya moderates his speed with aplomb. Words race as Shy helps thwart a plot to spread a deadly virus. In other places, he slows his reading as if he’s creating small pauses to allow listeners to feel the unfairness of societal norms, the power of greed, and the impact of Shy’s thoughts.

De la Peña not only writes books that speak to young adults, he also speaks directly to them during his author visits. Many of these are at schools that reflect his multicultural characters’ backgrounds. Last November, one of these experiences became the impetus for a powerful NPR blog article. In “Sometimes The ‘Tough Teen’ Is Quietly Writing Stories,” de la Peña zooms in on an “overcrowded junior high school in a rougher part of San Antonio,” with a largely Hispanic population in which more than 90 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. That’s where he met Joshua.  Joshua was pointed out by the principal as a “real instigator.” De la Peña noted Joshua was “bigger than everyone else. He had neck tattoos and a shaved head. He kept smacking the kid next to him in the back of the head and laughing.” But Joshua sat up and paid attention as de la Peña described the early struggles he’d faced in school, those that “shattered my confidence.”

His presentation spurred Joshua to come forward afterward and reveal how he’d been born in a prison, held back in school and “wrote stories sometimes”. He handed the author his book, telling de la Peña that he was the first person who’d ever read his writing.

“That night I read Joshua’s words,” de la Peña writes, “They were beautiful. And ugly. And sad. They were full of heart. This Mexican kid, who was a thug, who was not pretty and felt like he was too big for his grade, too old — he had all these feelings he didn’t know what to do with. So he wrote them into stories.” Just like the author Joshua had admired.

Whatever mode is available, de la Peña reaches out to kids who feel as overwhelmed as his young characters, and as he often did in his own youth.  His words are open and honest and let young adults know that “even in the harshest and ugliest of circumstances, there’s still hope.” Matt de la Peña knows the truth of this more than most people and he writes powerfully for those secret readers and writers who are in need of the hope he delivers.

Matt de la Peña’s words are much stronger than mine. You can read his entire article at:


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