Award-winning author Matt de la Peña has made a career out of writing for teenagers.
The San Diego native who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has published four novels for teens, contributed an entry in a sci-fi/fantasy series for middle readers, and created a picture book about boxing legend Joe Louis. His newest book for teens, “The Living,” hits store shelves Tuesday, and two days later he’ll be in Spokane as part of Gonzaga University’s Visiting Writers Series.
Many of his novels center on Mexican-American characters, which has put him afoul with the Arizona education system and a recent state law that prohibits teaching books deemed “anti-white.” Still, he has a faithful following. De la Peña took a few minutes to answer some questions about his work in this Five Questions interview.
Q. What is it that attracted you to young adult fiction?
A. I had no idea what YA fiction was until my first novel was acquired by a YA publisher and I Googled the term. No joke. Turns out it’s a great space for me. I love the coming of age story, both as a reader and a writer. I love watching a teen experience things for the first time like love and loss and shame – without the benefit of retrospection. Teens are so alive and vulnerable.
Q. Several of your books have dealt with issues of race. Do you find that it’s especially challenging dealing with those issues in young adult lit, given how particular some parents can be regarding what their children read?
A. I think it’s easier to deal with issues of race and class in YA literature. Many adults, in my opinion, gravitate to books that reinforce their current ideologies. Teens are still searching for what they believe and are therefore more open as readers. And I never worry about parents. If you try and appeal to a kid’s mom or dad, the book is dead on arrival for the teen himself.
Q. Of your new book, “The Living,” you’ve said it’s the one you’ve spent the most time on. What was it about this story that intrigued you so?
A. I had written four quieter, literary novels, and I wanted to write something a little louder, something with a bit more at stake. “The Living” is more action-driven. I wrote two failed drafts before I understood how to truly dial up the action. As my editor puts it, my first draft was an action novel with no action. So it was back to the drawing board. But it was time to write outside of my comfort zone.
Q. You’ve also contributed a book to the “Infinity Ring” series. How was it writing a book that is a strict genre piece?
A. I’m really good friends with the other writers in the series, so the “Infinity Ring” project was a lot of fun. We all brainstormed the story arc before the first book was written. It’s interesting, the genre element was so clearly defined in the series, I was able to focus on the character development.
Q. You often get out and talk to students and readers. What impresses you about young readers these days? After all, the printed word is supposedly dying, right?
A. Young readers are the most loyal readers in the world. If they fall for one of your books, they will go back and read everything you’ve ever published. And they will read their favorite over and over. Story will always exist, I think, even if the way we experience it eventually changes. I think books are even more important now that technology has taken off the way it has. The process of slowing down and investing in a single, solitary task has become vital to development. And believe it or not, the more kids are inundated with gadgets, the more they love books. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But it’s what I see in schools.