Stories Everywhere

Matt de la Peña writes stories for a living. The tale of how he became a celebrated and award-winning author is one he never imagined.

“When I was young, I wasn’t a big reader,” he told Lower Schoolers during a special virtual gathering on Wednesday, October 27. “I used to think that the only kid in my class who is going to go on and do something really interesting with their life is the kid who gets the best score on the spelling tests or who got As on every math test.”

That’s not the case. De la Peña is the author of seven young adult novels and five picture books, including Mexican WhiteBoy and Last Stop on Market Street. As part of Sidwell Friends School’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, he joined each division for a talk and then met with the community at large the evening of October 27.

When he met with the Upper Schoolers on Monday, October 25, he spoke about how as a child he rarely left his insular community, where he knew no one who had gone to college except his teachers. He was awarded a basketball scholarship to the University of the Pacific, where a new world opened up. He spoke of how exceeding his parents’ “low expectations” of him—his father had to drop out of high school, and his mother’s education ended with her high school diploma—gave him some liberties that students who were from backgrounds where college was expected didn’t enjoy. Through less pressure, he found more freedom.

When he spoke to the Middle School, he discussed how the broadening of literature at the college level was a revelation. “The books we had to read in high school and middle school were so foreign to me,” he said. “I value those books now, but when I was an inexperienced reader, it was hard for me to connect.”

That changed when he read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street in college. “It felt like the author was writing about my neighborhood,” he said. “I started to wonder if I could do it, too, so that some young person out there would feel that I was writing about their neighborhood.” Consequently, many of his books are about multiracial protagonists, nontraditional families, and immigration (his latest, Superman: Dawnbreaker, which deals with Clark Kent as a teenager, is about “Superman—the ultimate immigrant,” he said).

To the Lower School, de la Peña spoke about the influence of his parents, especially about how his mother influenced and encouraged him.

“If you have someone who looks at you like my mom did, like you could be somebody, then you are so wealthy,” he said. “I’ve tried to put that same idea into my books. I hope my books are looking at readers the same way my mom looked at me.”

During the evening all-community event, de la Peña spoke on the importance of bringing less judgement into relationships with children and allowing them to see the world from their own perspective.

“One term that Matt used that resonated with me as a teacher was ‘pedagogical humility,’ meaning that as teachers, we often don’t see the payoff,” said history teacher and Supervía Endowed Faculty Chair for Spanish and Latin American Studies Silvana Niazi, who moderated the event. “He explained that as teachers, we plant the seed, but often, the fruit of that seed does not come about until well beyond a student’s time with us. Matt’s honesty about the ways in which one teacher’s words reminded him to believe in himself as an able writer moved me to think about the role of hope and patience in our work as teachers.”

“No one is born a writer,” de la Peña told students. “There are people who see the world slightly slanted, and those people often make good writers. If you speak less and listen more, you’ll see there are stories all around you.”

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Stories Everywhere

The award-winning author Matt de la Peña visited with each School division and the community at large to talk about finding himself in books, the freedom of low expectations, and how writers are made, not born.