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Matt de la Peña: Providing entry points for young adult readers

Award-winning author Matt de la Peña talks about the ways in books about familiar topics, such as his young adult novel Ball Don’t Lie, provide an entry point into reading for young adults.

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Matt de la Pena


Matt de la Peña

Matt de la Peña is the New York Times bestselling, Newbery Medal winning author of seven young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoyWe Were Here and Superman: Dawnbreaker) and five picture books (including Last Stop on Market Street and Love). 


One of the things that I think about now when I’m writing for young people who are often reluctant readers, at least when I’m writing my young adult novels, is I think about that version of myself and I try to leave as many entry points for kids like that as I can.

Sometimes it’s going to be the character looks like you or speaks like you. Sometimes it’s going to be a similar setting, but sometimes it’s going to be a sport. And I’ll tell you, I had one instance that really taught me a lot. My first novel is called Ball Don’t Lie, but it was originally called Three Stones Back.

And you know, I didn’t want to write about basketball because, as I said earlier, when I was just getting into writing I was so conscious of being viewed as a jock, that I was like a tourist in the world of art. So I didn’t want to write about basketball, but then there was so much to explore in the world of pickup basketball, that I had to do it. But my title was not going to have anything to do with basketball. It was going to be Three Stones Back, which was a metaphor for class. And so this was going to be my title.

But I was a first time author, and my publisher asked me to change the title to something that included basketball. And I was heartbroken because I thought, oh, now people are going to just think I’m this basketball guy who’s writing a book and it doesn’t really matter. It’s for kids who play basketball, and that broke my heart.

So I came up with, Ball Don’t Lie, which I thought at least had like a double meaning. Well, I ended up going early in my career on a school visit to a place in Texas, a high school in Texas. And the librarian had this great idea, “I’m going to have you speak to the general population for one talk, but then the second talk is going to be only for the athletes.”

But as I was walking to the second talk the head basketball coach told me about this kid named Lee who was their best basketball player, he was a sophomore, and he was definitely going to go to college on a scholarship.

He goes, “I got to tell you, Ball Don’t Lie is his favorite novel he’s ever read. He’s read it like five times.” And I was like, oh, my god, this kid sounds amazing. Should I just like bring the adoption papers with me? And he goes, well, let me let you meet him. So Lee and I had a one-on-one meeting. I’d never met anyone in my life who had read my book more than once who hadn’t been paid to, like my editor.

And so I was like, “Hey, I heard Ball Don’t Lie is your favorite novel?” And he was like, “Oh, yeah, I love this novel.” And so I was like, “Why Ball Don’t Lie?” And he said, “Well, basketball’s my life; I’ll read anything that has to do with basketball.” And he goes, “So when I saw Ball Don’t Lie, I was like I got to read this.”

And I was like, “Okay, that’s kind of what I had expected.” But I liked, I wanted to continue this conversation because it felt good, you know. I’m meeting a reader who’d liked my book. So I said, “Well what are your favorite parts of the book, I’m just curious?” And he proceeded to describe in great detail five different scenes in the novel that were his favorite.

And here’s the amazing thing. None of those scenes had anything to do with basketball. And it just taught me in that moment that my publisher was right. They allowed an entry point through the title for this kid Lee, for a kid like me, but once he got there, he found bits of the human experience the most interesting.

So basketball got him in, and being a human and watching another human try to navigate the world, is what resonated for him. And that’s what he took away.