Matt de la Pena is not just a man of words. Of course, as an author, words are his world, but when it comes to children’s and young adult literature, he bolsters words of legitimacy with actions of advocacy. Awarded the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award for 2016 for his advocacy, Matt strives to defend and campaign for multicultural YA texts, which allow adolescent readers to see “reflections of themselves.”
When the Mexican-American studies program was eliminated from the curriculum in Tuscon, therefore censoring Mexican WhiteBoy as a text that could be taught (but could still be read for leisure reading), Matt donated his speaking fee purchase 240 copies of the book and spoke out about the need for students to seek materials that will improve themselves. This instance proved again, that Mr. de la Pena does indeed support his words with action.
As the first Latino male to win the Newbery Award, Matt explains that his goal as an author is to simply, “share my passion for writing diverse, working-class characters to a broader audience,” but his advocacy is much more than that. In an essay for NPR’s Codeswitch, Matt shares a personal story of a school speaking engagement which introduced him to, according the school’s principal, a trouble-making student. Matt and the school librarian were surprised to learn that the student had quietly been writing pieces of his own. This anecdote asks us to evaluate the assumptions we make about teens and how those assumptions can set a trajectory for low self-confidence and failure. Through his books and his advocacy, Mr. de la Pena encourages all involved to challenge their own assumptions and seek out ways to support teens through literacy. He suggests that teachers and librarians help students own their creativity, which can sometimes assist them in finding solace and a “secret place to feel.” He shares that his goal as a writer is to “recede into the background” and provide a space for readers to form judgements and develop familiarity with complex emotions.
Matt de la Pena will be speaking in Knoxville on September 19th, 2016 at 7:00 P.M. You can hear him speak at Barnes and Noble, 8029 Kingston Pike.