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Author Matt de la Peña is a rare kind of children’s author: he’s honest

The cover of the picture book "Milo Imagines the World."
The cover of “Milo Imagines the World” by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson.
(Courtesy photo)

The San Diego-bred author explores a variety of social issues in his picture books, including the newly-released ‘Milo Imagines the World.’

What no one tells you after winning a Newbery Medal is how difficult it is to write your next book.

In 2016, San Diego author Matt de la Peña won the prestigious children’s literature award for “Last Stop on Market Street,” a picture book that deals with inequity. The Newbery is rarely awarded to picture books, and de le Peña was also the first Hispanic author to ever receive it. Additionally, the book’s illustrator, Christian Robinson, was awarded the Caldecott Medal.

That’s a lot of success for an author who spent his early years in National City never realizing that writing books was even a career option. So when it was time to start his follow-up book, 2018’s “Love,” de la Peña wrote one line and thought, “is this a Newbery Award-winning line?”

“It made me feel nauseous,” he admits. “I thought, ‘Oh, do people see me as a certain type of writer, and do I have to live up to that now?’ That’s the hard part that you have to navigate.”

It took some time to get over that pressure, but now that he’s several years removed from the award, de la Peña is appreciative of the unexpected gift that came with the Newbery.

“The obvious gift is that the book is going to be in every school,” he explains. “But it’s also a gift because now publishers will take a risk on a story that I want to tell. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a commercial book for them to invest heavily in it. ‘Milo Imagines the World’ is a great example ... traditionally this is the kind of book that would be quieter. It would be set aside for, you know, places like where I grew up. But now, because of the Newbery and Caldecott honors, Penguin’s trying to get this book even into wealthy suburbs. That’s the gift of awards.”

Author Matt de la Pena
Author Matt de la Pena was raised in San Diego and recently returned to teach literature at San Diego State University.
(Heather Waraksa)

Judging a book by its cover

On the surface, “Milo Imagines the World” does appear to be a traditional kind of story about using your imagination. There’s an illustration of a boy wearing a green hat with a pencil tucked behind his ear. In the background he’s surrounded by childlike drawings of buildings, a butterfly and a dinosaur.

And if you just glance the first few pages, it would seem that the book is about a kid on a long subway ride with his sister. As people get on and off the train, Milo draws pictures of them, imagining stories about who they are, where they’re going and what they do.

Like when a boy Milo’s age gets on the train wearing a nice suit — Milo imagines the clop clop clop of the horse-drawn carriage that will carry him to his castle. Across the human-made moat the boy is met by a butler, two maids, and a gourmet chef offering crust-free sandwich squares.

What isn’t clear from the cover, though, is that the book tackles a subject not often depicted in literature meant for young readers: incarcerated parents.

“I think every children’s book creator has to ask themselves a question — what is my role in writing books for the very young?” de la Peña says. “Is it to preserve innocence or tell the truth? Because sometimes they don’t fit together perfectly, sometimes there’s a dissonance there. So I always prefer to lean toward the truth.”

To give away any more details of “Milo Imagines the World” would spoil the experience of the sweet yet poignant book. It manages to be sophisticated while also bringing in the joy and wonder associated with picture books.

Because even though “Milo Imagines the World” is about an incarcerated parent, it’s also not really about that ...

“I knew I wanted to explore a young person with incarcerated mother but I wanted that to be in the margins of the story and not the focus of the story,” de la Peña explains. “One of the ways I approach heavier subject matters with young readers is to put it in the margins, where it’s kind of quiet. Think of it like turning up or down the volume on a stereo — I turn the volume down on the heavy, so it’s there to be explored but it’s not the only thing to explore.”

Other things to explore in a de la Peña story include new points-of-view, characters who kids may not meet in their every day life, experiences — like watching break dancers on a subway — that some San Diego kids have likely never even imagined.

“Some young people are not going to get the serious part, they’re just going to have fun with the book,” he says. “And that is just as valid.”

An illustrated journey

Illustrator Christian Robinson
Illustrator Christian Robinson was raised in Los Angeles and now lives in Northern California.
(John Kwiatkowski)

Over a career that includes middle grade novels, stories for young adults and picture books, de la Peña has worked with a variety of illustrators, including esteemed fellow San Diegan, Kadir Nelson. Their book, “A Nation’s Hope — The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis” was released in 2011.

“I love Kadir’s work, there’s an honor to it,” de la Peña says. “It’s fine art.”

But the author found that working with up-and-coming illustrator Christian Robinson provided a perfect balance to the serious and honest subjects he was writing about.

“I adore working with Christian. His art is so whimsical that when he illustrates my texts, he undercuts some of the heaviness,” de la Peña says. “I feel like I’m writing a spoken word poem and then when I give it to Christian, he makes it a picture book.”

Along with “Last Stop on Market Street” and “Milo Imagines the World,” the two also collaborated on “Carmela Full of Wishes,” a picture book inspired by the migrant community in Watsonville, Calif. where de la Peña’s parents moved after he relocated to New York.

And while many of de la Peña’s books are inspired by slices of his own life, “Milo Imagines the World” is actually Robinson’s story. The illustrator grew up with an incarcerated mother and was raised by his grandmother.

Though authors and illustrators don’t often collaborate — a writer turns in text and the illustrator works from the material — de la Peña and Robinson have built a trust over their various projects. So while they were on a book tour for “Carmela Full of Wishes,” Robinson mentioned that he was ready to tackle the personal subject of incarcerated parents and de la Peña was 100 percent on board.

“It was my dream to work on this with Christian because I knew this was an important story for him — and for so many kids,” de la Peña says.

Back to the start

De la Peña grew up in National City, but his “Mexican hippie surfer” father eventually moved the family to Cardiff for the schools, and de la Peña graduated from San Dieguito Academy.

“That really did change the direction of everything,” he says.

The aspiring author attended the University of the Pacific on a full basketball scholarship and returned to San Diego to get his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University.

In the early 2000s, de la Peña moved to Brooklyn where he met his wife, book publicist Caroline Sun, and they had two children. Though he was thousands of miles from home, he continued to write stories about his border-influenced upbringing.

His YA book, “Mexican WhiteBoy,” for example, is a Spanglish-heavy story about a kid who is too Mexican for his North County neighborhood, but not quite Mexican enough for his relatives in National City. (The book was banned in Arizona as part of a short-lived initiative to ban Mexican American Studies Department programs in the Tucson Unified School District. “Mexican WhiteBoy” was said to promote “racial resentment.”)

But de la Peña’s long-term plan was always to return to San Diego. And these days he lives in Bird Rock with his family, where instead of riding the subway like Milo, they go on family walks to explore their beachside community.

And along with writing picture books and novels for young adults, he also teaches literature at San Diego State University.

“When I was in Brooklyn, my dream was always to come back to teach at the MFA program at San Diego State and help foster Latinx writers,” he says. “I feel so lucky that I get to work with the generation that’s going to write new, updated versions of Latinx stories.”


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