#parent | #kids | San Diego author Matt de la Peña finds rhythm in basketball, writing and everyday life


Matt de la Peña is a writer who wants to make kids feel more seen by the rest of the world.

He wasn’t a reader growing up. It wasn’t until he found a book that spoke to his experience, “The House on Mango Street,” that he realized that books were for kids like him, not just for wealthier kids with shelves full of them.

With that inspiration, he’s written books that reflect his own experience growing up as a basketball-loving teen in San Diego, including “Ball Don’t Lie” and “Mexican WhiteBoy.” And clearly his work is resonating, because he’s published more than a dozen books ranging from children’s picture books to the young adult genre, become a The New York Times bestseller and won the Newbery Medal, among other awards.

His latest book, “Milo Imagines the World,” is a beautifully illustrated experience that takes place on a long subway ride filled with interesting people that is told through the eyes of a young boy named Milo. Along the way, he learns that life could be different than how he originally imagines it.

De la Peña is a graduate of University of the Pacific — where he played college hoops — and of San Diego State University’s MFA program. He now teaches the next generation of writers at SDSU.

He joined the Name Drop San Diego podcast to talk about what inspires him as a writer. Read excerpts of the conversation below or listen to the interview on the podcast player above or on any of these podcast apps:

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On how he discovered he’s a writer:

As a boy growing up in kind of a machismo family, I always thought I wasn’t supposed to be writing poetry because it was too sensitive for a guy, especially in a working class family. But I was. I was always writing spoken word-style poetry all through middle and high school and it was just when I got to college that I was brave enough to share it for the first time. It’s a very strange genesis for me with writing. I don’t know if this will make sense, but the rhythms I found beautiful in basketball, I found the same thing with words.

On what inspires his writing:

When I was writing my first book, I was living in L.A., in Venice Beach, and I saw this one boy. He looked like he was at least part Mexican and he had his hood up with headphones on and he was holding a ball under his arm waiting for the bus. He was sitting on the back part of the seat, and his feet were on the bench. I noticed all these fancy cars were pulling up to the light and, you know, in Venice, very wealthy people roll through the tougher parts of the neighborhood, and nobody looked at him. It was as if he was invisible. And I remember having this epiphany as an emerging writer. I thought, “If you’re ever going to read one of my books, you’re going to look at him for 300 pages because I feel like his life is just as beautiful and interesting as your life, and I want to prove it.” So I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my entire career is show moments of grace and dignity of kids growing up on the quote-unquote wrong side of the track.

Advice for young writers:

You can’t even be a good writer until first you’re first a great reader. That’s the fuel for all good writing, people reading other experiences. If you’re interested in identity, read about other people exploring identity. When you read a story or write a book, you’re really just kind of entering a conversation that other people are already having and now you’re entering it with your own exploration of identity. The second thing is, we all have just fascinating lives and we don’t realize we do. I remember when I was growing up I thought, “My life is so normal and boring.” And I thought, “Who would ever want to watch a movie about me?” But that’s what every kid feels because they’re inhabiting that story and they see it every day. But if I took a kid’s story in San Diego and took it with me to New York, they would be fascinated about what it’s like to grow up in Logan Heights or on Coronado island. Sometimes, the more specific you are about your experience, the more universal it becomes for readers.

Favorite children’s book:

I’m going to say two. “Each Kindness,” by Jacqueline Woodson, which is a picture book, and a book called “Bud, Not Buddy,” by Christopher Paul Curtis, which is middle grade.

Best part of San Diego:

How much we’re outside and how healthy I feel like this city is. Everybody is walking their dog, playing with their kids at the park, going to the beach, so it feels like a very healthy, not just physical health but mental health.

Worst thing about San Diego:

It has nothing to do with San Diego. It’s the perception of San Diego by others — and I hate this more than anything and it’s probably the main reason I wanted to move back here. We have this perception that it’s too happy and too sunny to produce interesting art. That’s not true at all. Some of the students I work with at San Diego State, they’re producing incredible fiction and poetry and I want so badly to change the perception of the art that comes out of San Diego. There’s edgy art and culturally interesting art that comes out of this city and we need to get some eyeballs on it.



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