Diversity In Children’s Fiction with Matt De La Pena

Written by on July 8th, 2015 // Filed under Book Recommendations, Erika Viktor, Uncategorized

Matt De La Pena

As I write this post I am repeating a mantra:

“No Josh Groban Jokes, no Josh Groban Jokes!”

Because you see, he looks a lot like Josh Groban. Who am I talking about? Why, uber diversity kid-lit super star Matt De La Pena!

At my last SCBWI conference, I had the pleasure of listening to Matt speak on diversity. I also ambushed him in the hallway and spoke to him between sessions. He was an amazingly personable guy! We spoke about living in New York and the cool kid-lit culture scene that exists there. He also patiently answered some of my questions and did not smack me when I told him he looked like Josh Groban (it’s okay, Matt, people tell me I look like Zooey Deschanel, Dakota Johnson and Emily Blunt, though I think those people are confusing “looking like someone” with “having the same haircut as someone.”)

Now, diversity is really important and I was excited to learn what other people thought about it. I did have to wonder why the good people at SCBWI chose to deal with this topic in the most white state in the union: Boise Idaho. I looked around the room and chucklingly noticed to myself that there was exactly two people of color there, and one of them was Matt. (Can I say “of color?”) Everyone else was a very, very white school teacher/mom/housewife type, and because of that, we were scared poopless. We were all human women without color (can I say “without color?”) and were super sensitive about putting people of any race in our books because . . . are we allowed to? If we try, will all the editors strike us down and send their monkeys to dance on our smoking corpses?

Okay. I’m getting dramatic. Slowing down…

I want to do the right thing but I’m scared. In fact, I have written and rewritten this post about 40 times, taking out anything that got as near as forty miles from anything that would either point out race differences or allude to racial inequalities. That’s how scared I am.

This topic was of particular concern to me because an editor had an issue with a Native American in one of my novels. This was said while Twilight—a book where Native Americans ARE LITERALLY WEREWOLVES was topping the charts. I was thoroughly confused as to what the editor meant. Was the inclusion of this character revealing me as “a racial stereotype” writer? Was the fact that this character was eccentric a problem? What am I doing wrong? Did it count that my great, great, great grandfather was full Cherokee?

I’m not alone in feeling slightly unsure when it comes to race. Attendees at the conference (the HUGE majority being 40+ year-old white women) kept asking nervous questions to the speakers. How can we be supportive of the cause of race equality while still honoring what makes certain cultures different?

As Matt would illustrate, it isn’t an easy path to navigate.

Matt is viewed as a Hispanic author but was viewed as white while growing up, being the son of mixed-race parents. Throughout his childhood he suffered from being “not Mexican enough.” Despite this nagging sense, he adopted the culture of the “machismo” which is all about honor and respect. He went on to denounce things that made him openly cry and even went on to a basketball scholarship from the University of the Pacific.

But it was the book “The Color Purple” that finally broke this “no-cry” exterior. He openly wept while reading it. From then on, reading and writing became a safe place to feel. Matt said: “Reading is the ultimate form of empathy.”

One of Matt’s poems won a contest (partly due to the fact he eliminated some of the competition by removing the posters advertising the contest, ha ha!) but all his team mates thought he was weird. Matt then turned to other writers to find his people. He learned that they viewed him as a jock, rather than a writer. Matt felt like he could never exist fully in any particular circle.

That feeling of always being outside deepened his novels, which went on to become New York Times best sellers.

Matt’s talk was filled with a lot of hilarious confessions. Like the time when he ripped out the agent pages in a copy of “Writer’s Market” because he couldn’t afford to buy it. He has since paid that Barnes & Noble back. He also told of how he wrote letters to agents telling them that his mom (who was going through menopause and was therefore extremely moody) would be cheered up if he was signed.

Matt’s most important piece of wisdom for the non-diverse writer: “You can write outside your race as long as you write the inside of your character.”

Matt’s Books:

The Hunted (2015)

Last Stop on Market Street (2015)

The Living (2015)

I Will Save You (2011)

Mexican Whiteboy (2010)

We Were Here (2010)

Ball Don’t Lie (2007)

matt_delapena Bio From Matt’s Website: Matt de la Peña is the New York Times bestselling author of six critically-acclaimed young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoy, The Living and The Hunted) and two award-winning picture books (A Nations Hope and Last Stop on Market Street). Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship for basketball. de la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his family. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.

9 Responses to “Diversity In Children’s Fiction with Matt De La Pena”

  1. “this was said while Twilight—a book where Native Americans ARE LITERALLY WEREWOLVES was topping the charts” So funny! This was a great interview, enjoyable and informative. Thanks for sharing!

    Posted by JennyReply
  2. This is a very good topic of discussion. As someone who was the “jock” in High School and the “frat-boy” in college, and growing up between the Dominican Republic and NY yet never being seen as “Dominican enough” or “American enough” to be fully accepted in either, and now trying to be looked at and accepted as a writer, I can totally relate to Mr De La Pena. There’s no box that comes in this unusual shape. And I know this can totally be leveraged to my advantage, my current goal is figuring out how without being exploitative. “The obstacle is the way” right?

    On the topic of writing about diverse characters, it’s a touchy subject for any author, including us “people of color.” The fact that you’re taking time to ponder it already starts you in a good place. And MDLP’s quote is a great axiom on it.

    How I see it is: your character of color can be whatever you want it to be as long as somehow you weave in there that they don’t represent your view of EVERYONE in that particular race. There should be somewhat of a counterpoint within that same group. If your character is silly, maybe he comes from an uptight family which explains his disdain for it. If he’s smart, maybe he has friends in his group of varying degrees of intelligence. Basically, it’s always bad business when a reader can say that the character is the “token _____” without having an anti-token in the same story to set them straight. Yes, maybe it weighs down your story a bit, but if you succeed it adds a whole extra dimension of reality to the work. Trust me, even the non-white authors who break this guideline get horrible backlash from their people, it just doesn’t get the same publicity that an out-group author might.

    Posted by Alex CespedesReply
    • You bring up a really great point, Alex! Choosing a character that has many dimensions of personality, race and culture is an excellent starting point. There is so much demand for that kind of kid-lit right now. A lot of speakers touched on the fact that we need diverse books for kids who are grouped as diverse to read. They need to relate to characters like themselves. That was a nice point.

      Posted by Erika ViktorReply
  3. It was me who said you looked like Dakota Johnson, thank you very much. True story. The only interesting thing that kept me watching that Fifty Shades of Gray movie BTW

    Posted by DURFEEReply
    • I’ve decided I’m flattered..Durfee. I mean, you’re famous!!!

      Posted by Erika ViktorReply
    • I heard this again the other day. Sheesh!

      Posted by Erika ViktorReply
  4. Malorie Blackman has vowed that hell will freeze over before I let racists and haters silence me after facing an outpouring of racist abuse following her call for more diversity in children’s books. The attacks began after the award-winning author spoke to Sky News about diversity in children’s literature, saying that although you want to escape into fiction … and read about other people, other cultures, other lives, other planets , there is a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading .

    Posted by DysonReply

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