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Matt de la Peña: Reading “Basketball Digest” in middle school

Award-winning author Matt de la Peña recalls his interest in reading “Basketball Digest” in middle school, in spite of the fact that he didn’t see himself as a reader.

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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). 


When I was in middle school I started to go to our school library early because my parents had to drop me off early. So I was at school an hour before school started, and I started to go into the library. Which was always a daunting place for me because there are so many books, and how do you choose, and, “Maybe I don’t belong here because I’m not somebody who reads books.”

But I love sports, I love basketball in particular, and I started to grab this one magazine called Basketball Digest. And I loved it - I would devour it. Every single time the new issue came out, I would just race through it. So I would go to this one table, there were many tables, and I would find my little favorite table. And I still have this weird feeling where I need this certain table, even when I’m writing at a coffee shop.

So I went to this one table and then I thought, “Is it kind of strange that I’m reading a basketball magazine in the library? This seems wrong. You know, this isn’t real reading,” because that’s kind of the messaging I got back then. So, I thought I was kind of clever. So I grabbed the biggest book I could find, usually a big Russian novel with all these names I couldn’t pronounce and I would put Basketball Digest inside of it. And I was like, “Okay, now at least the librarian will think I’m here for the right reason.”

And so I would just read Basketball Digest inside of it. And I thought she barely even noticed me there. But occasionally she’d come by and say, “Oh, I see you’ve got a Russian novel there. How are you liking this?” And you know, I would just like sort of think I was so clever, eighth grade, “Oh, you know, this is a great book, it’s called War and Peace, it’s like there’s all this war and then things become peaceful, it’s amazing.”

And she’d be like, “Okay, that’s great.” And she’d move along and I’d be like, oh, sucker, and I’d go back to my Basketball Digest. And then of course, she knew all along that I was reading a basketball magazine and would always pass me like secretly the new issue. And I was always confused, like, “What’s going on here? Like, how does she know this?” Well, she’s somebody who actually noticed the people who were in her library, and she saw us.

And the bummer is, looking back, of that whole story what bothers me the most is that somehow I had received this message that reading about sports was not real reading. When you think about it though, I was fascinated by what these different players had to overcome in their neighborhoods, in their family life, to become a successful NBA player. I was fascinated by that. I gravitated to all the profiles.

That’s what you find in great literature, right? You find, you know, there’s conflict, and a character has to persevere to overcome something and then you find out where they’re going to be at the end of the novel that’s different from the beginning.