Award-winning author Matt de la Peña recalls a conversation with a teacher who said she enjoyed his books but didn’t have many copies at her school since the student population was so different from his characters.
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My first four young adult novels, they’re all about mixed-race kids growing up in tougher communities, similar to the community I grew up in. And so we’re following kids in their own setting who are struggling. Right? And I love these books. They were quiet, they were diverse.
But I noticed something. I’d go to a Title I school and the books would have great representation; they’d even be in the curriculum sometimes. Which made me feel so proud because I remember sitting in a high school class and I remember the books that we’d be giving in the curriculum, and none of them really felt like my book. And I wondered, “Oh, maybe some of these books, they’re going to reflect some of the kids’ experience.” And it made me feel great about that.
But then I would go to the – some of the suburban schools or private schools, and I would notice, even though I was the guest speaker, there would only be like one or two copies in the library. And I didn’t understand the difference. I didn’t understand why there would be a lot of them in the poorer schools, and then in the more wealthy schools, the more predominantly White schools, there wouldn’t be so many.
And so I just kind of just thought, okay, well this is what it’s like to be an other, there are some things you just don’t understand. But then to fast forward to maybe around eight months after my fourth book came out, I went to a national conference for English teachers. I was on a panel with a couple of other authors and we had a great crowd. I think we had like 500 people or something, and we were answering questions.
And at the end I started to walk back to my hotel. And I remember there was one particular teacher who kind of hustled to catch up to me. And she said, “Matt, I’m so glad I got to talk to you. I really love your books. And I just was, I was hoping I would be able to hear you speak.” And I was like, “Oh, thank you so much.” And she said, “I’ll be honest with you, we don’t have too many kids like that in our school so we don’t actually have too many copies of your books. But I wanted you to know that I really appreciate what you’re doing.” And I was like, “Oh, no problem, thank you ma’am.”
But then there was something gnawing at me. And I didn’t even understand what it was. And you know after a couple seconds’ pause I looked up at her and I said, “Out of curiosity, how many wizards do you have at your school?” And she said, “What?” And I said, “Oh, never mind.” But you understand the implications, right?
It was fascinating to me in that moment that, you know, these kids in private schools could read about vampires or wizards, but they felt like they were disconnected from a mixed race kid growing up in a tougher community. Isn’t that interesting? I still to this day find that so fascinating.
And so, I remember thinking, when I go to the Title I schools, they’re reading Looking For Alaska by John Green, they’re reading Catcher in the Rye. So why can’t I go to the private school and see some books with diverse characters that are at the core of the curriculum? Now, I will tell you, I’m starting to see that now. More and more I’m seeing that.
And then one other thing I want to share is I don’t ever want it to come across that I’m saying we should have this kind of book, with a kid in a tough neighborhood, instead of that kind of book. I’m always hoping to say, we should have this kind of book alongside that kind of book. So, I don’t believe in replacement; I just believe in inclusion.