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Matt de la Peña talks about writing "Superman: Dawnbreaker"

Award-winning author Matt de la Peña talks about what it was like to write about an iconic superhero like Superman (one of his father’s favorite heroes) and his unique approach to the story.

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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). 


Superman: Dawnbreaker, when I was invited to get the opportunity to tell Superman’s story as a teen, I was overwhelmed. I also thought, “oh, this isn’t really a good fit for me.” I don’t really watch those kinds of movies. I didn’t grow up reading comics. I don’t know if I’m the right person for the job.

But then there are two other factors that I think came into play. First of all, when my dad was young, his favorite superhero in the world was Superman. And I used to ask him, this is strange because he was somebody who actually felt like the American Dream didn’t apply to him and that was the messaging I got all through my childhood.

He had a chip on his shoulder, he said, “America doesn’t care about people like me. We are voiceless. America doesn’t even want to know I exist.” But yet, he loved Superman. And I remember asking him, “Why Superman?” As an adult asking him this. And he said, “Well, he’s like the ultimate American. You know, like he’s like everybody looks up to him. I just love that. I wondered what it would be like to have that thought about me.”

So that was one thing. But then I also thought, well actually Superman’s the ultimate immigrant, right? Because he’s coming from somewhere else. Is this a possible vehicle to explore immigration? I had just come off writing Carmela Full of Wishes, the picture book, about a mixed-status family and I thought, “Gosh, the themes are so similar, I wonder if I could do that?” But then I also thought, “There is no way the publisher will let me do this. This is a superhero story, it’s supposed to be exciting and save the world.”

And so I said, “I would love to tell this story, but I would love to tell it this way.” And I thought I’d get major pushback, but they said, “That’s what we want you to do.” So I was so excited. And that’s how I approached it. I thought, here’s a young man who identifies, according to other people, as American, as the ultimate American even. But deep down he has the same feelings of identity insecurities that, you know, all the characters I write about have. So, it was actually a really nice fit.

And, to bring it back to something we talked about earlier, it was also an opportunity to bring in reluctant readers to explore some of the themes I’m interested in. So, here’s a superhero story. Well, that may be your entry point. But once you get in there, maybe you get to explore, “What does it mean to be an immigrant? What does it mean to feel ‘othered’?” How do you navigate that? So that was a really fun, kind of like subversive thing I got to do in Superman.