“This is weird,” said Matt de la Peña, who spoke with PW via cell phone from St. Paul, where he was in between lectures as part of the faculty for the Low-Residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Hamline University. Well known for his realistic YA novels that explore class and racial identity, de la Peña became the first Hispanic author to receive the John Newbery Medal on Monday when his second picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Putnam), was announced as the 2016 winner.
Away from his Brooklyn home, de la Peña heard the news while running on very little sleep. “I’m here this week, teaching, and I also had a book due today,” he explained. “So I stayed up until 3:30 last night finishing the last chapter. I probably had four hours to sleep before I had to go teach. But I left my phone on because I had heard rumblings about the Caldecott so I knew the book was in the conversation, and thought my agent [Steven Malk] might call me if that happened.”
Of course, it turned out to be a good thing that de la Peña’s cell phone was still powered on. “At 4:30, the phone rings, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe it got the Caldecott Honor or something,’ ” he recalled. The book was, in fact, named a Caldecott Honor for Robinson’s artwork, but this particular phone call was not de la Peña’s agent, but someone else. “The guy on the phone said he was the chair of the Newbery Committee, and I thought he messed up and said the wrong word.” But when committee chair Ernie J. Cox delivered the news, “I just literally could not comprehend it,” de la Peña said. “To tell you the truth, I still can’t believe it. I threatened to kiss him and everyone on the committee when I see them. It was a huge, huge shock.”
In short order de la Peña called his wife, Caroline Sun, back in New York. “She works in publishing, so she understands these awards,” he said. “I believe she cried – pretty hard. Then I called my mom, and she cried. Then I talked to my agent.”
Though it’s not unheard of for the Newbery to go to a picture book, this is only the second time it has happened (A Visit to William Blake’s Inn won the 1982 Newbery Medal). Last Stop on Market Street follows CJ, an African-American boy, and his grandmother, as they take a city bus through their neighborhood after church. While CJ questions Nana along the way about various things he lacks, she gently reminds him of all the beauty and special encounters they experience on their journey. Their conversation plays out in contemporary colloquial language and de la Peña called that “the biggest decision of the book, to leave it the way it is.” In most of his books de la Peña’s dialogue is informed by “recording what I hear” out in the world, he added. He believes that a lot of Hispanic speaking is influenced by African-American language. “It’s a mix of Spanglish and urban speak together,” he explained. Though he received some critical emails about Last Stop on Market Street not promoting “proper” English, it hasn’t been a major issue. “At school, CJ would probably switch codes, and speak the way he needs to to do well in that environment, but in the world of his grandmother, he’s going to be natural. The way he speaks on the bus is the truth, not a lesson.”
The story was sparked largely by de la Peña’s many school visits. “I visit a lot of underprivileged places where the kids are living in poverty and going to the rougher schools,” he said. “Those kids have such a feeling of unworthiness. Lots of times the older students will ask me, ‘Why would you come here?’ and it breaks my heart that they don’t think they deserve to have an author visit.” One thing he hopes that Last Stop on Market Street does, “in a subtle way, is to show those kids that they are worthy of being the hero in my books.” The Newbery can even further emphasize his point. “It’s important to see yourself in a book,” he said, “but now, the kid who sees himself as CJ gets to look at the cover of that book and he’ll see that sticker right next to his face. It’s another form of validation.”
While recognition is not the primary goal for most writers, de la Peña says it can make a big psychological difference. “As a writer you work in such solitude,” he said. “You aspire to do great work and when someone validates what you’re doing it’s more emotional than I could have imagined. That they thought this book was worthy of an award chips away at the imposter syndrome that I think all writers secretly have.” On the flip side, he cautions, “The ugliest thing you can do as an author is to assume that you should pay attention to the chatter, or assume you should win something. The same way a bad review can mess with your head, winning an award can mess you up mentally too. Of course I’m speaking from six hours of experience!”
De la Peña noted that a fellow author texted him about another significant aspect of his win. “The text said, ‘I believe you are the first Hispanic author to win the medal.’” That fact struck a deep chord with de la Peña in terms of his personal history. “I’m a mixed-race person: my father is Mexican, my mother is white,” he said. “I always worried that I wasn’t Mexican enough.” He said he feels a kinship with other Mexican-American and Latino-American authors “who have been writing for years. In a weird way I feel like I’m collecting this award for us, not to be exclusive, but to be celebratory,” he added. “It’s a powerful thing to consider.”
As for a more immediate celebration, de la Peña said once he’s back home in Brooklyn he’s going to “take a good week off before I start on anything new. I’ve been working a long time without a break and I’m excited about doing some reading.” A title at the top of his list is Bone Gap by friend and colleague Laura Ruby, who just won the 2016 Printz Award for that book, and who also happens to be in Minnesota this week, teaching in the Hamline program with de la Peña. “I can’t wait to get together and download with her later and maybe have a little tequila,” he said.
Next up following his brief respite will be working on any revisions for that YA novel he finished in the wee hours of the morning, a work for Random House tentatively titled One of Those Lights Used to Love Me, which the author described as a very personal story about “a kid who’s the first in his family to go to college, and about the guilt that a kid feels when he succeeds.” He will also continue on the picture book track with a new book that will be submitted for publication consideration soon. “It’s very preliminary but it has a similar vibe to Last Stop on Market Street and stars a Mexican-American girl,” de la Peña said. The tentative title for that project is Carmela Full of Wishes. “I’m so happy I already turned the novel in,” he said with a sigh. “I’m happy to have a week just to relax.”