Written by Piper Daleiden, Hope College English and Psychology Major, Student Managing Editor for the English Department
As part of the NEA Little Read Lakeshore, Matt de la Peña visited Hope College, where he spoke in classes, presented to elementary school children from the area, and finished with a keynote speech. De la Peña is a prominent children’s and YA author, and one of his picture books, Last Stop on Market Street, is the 2022 Little Read book.
During his keynote speech, de la Peña discussed the shifting role that literature has played in his life. He described himself as a reluctant reader when he was young. Growing up in a working-class area in southern California, his family members did not read as a hobby, so he had no early experiences with reading for enjoyment. However, this changed when he encountered The House on Mango Street. The protagonist in this story grew up in a community that felt familiar to de la Peña, and he found himself returning to this book again and again. He began to see books as places of comfort. His appreciation for literature expanded further when a college professor gave him The Color Purple. This novel was challenging but taught him to empathize with a character who was different than him. From there, reading and writing became increasingly important to him, and with the encouragement of professors, he earned an MFA in creative writing.
Literature did more than spark de la Peña’s love for writing. When his family was going through a difficult time, de la Peña’s father asked to borrow a book that de la Peña was reading in graduate school. Although de la Peña was surprised since his father did not read for fun, he agreed and continued to give every book he read in school to his father. These seemingly small actions culminated in his father going to college to study literature and becoming an elementary school teacher in a migrant community. De la Peña reflected,
“Sometimes when you give someone the right book at the right time… you’re giving them a better future.”
To de la Peña, literature is more than an escape into some fictional world; it can truly impact people in meaningful and tangible ways.
I also had the opportunity to listen to de la Peña talk in detail about his writing process during a Q&A session with my English 375 class, “Kids Save the World: Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” Our professor, Dr. Tucker, encouraged us to ask the questions that we’d been thinking about as we read picture books by de la Peña and other authors for the course. In response, de la Peña described how both the author and illustrator bring their unique perspectives into creating a picture book. He shared examples of instances when seeing an illustrator’s sketches led his plan for the story to adapt and grow.
De la Peña then explained that many of his stories are inspired by his own life. As an author, he especially wants to preserve and share stories from the community in which he grew up, and his neighborhood was the inspiration for Last Stop on Market Street. According to de la Peña, an author must “listen, go through the world quietly, and harvest stories.” Even when pulling ideas from real life, he advised going into the writing process with a point of view, not a definitive message. The original idea for the story will undergo many revisions, so the author should be open to wherever it might lead. De la Peña concluded by encouraging us to write what we find interesting or confusing, not what is trending.