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Bird Rock author Matt de la Peña celebrates children’s journeys to finding themselves

Author Matt de la Peña has a new children's book, "Patchwork," scheduled for release Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Author Matt de la Peña has a new children’s book, “Patchwork,” scheduled for release Tuesday, Aug. 30. He is scheduled to read from it and sign copies at the La Jolla/Riford Library on Friday, Aug. 26.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Newbery Medal-winning author of seven young-adult novels has a new children’s book, ‘Patchwork,’ and will appear Friday, Aug. 26, at the La Jolla/Riford Library.

Matt de la Peña grew up in two very different parts of San Diego. First in National City, where his family and friends and everyone he knew looked out for and took care of one another. Later, they moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, where he was closer to the ocean and got to know children from families who were different from what he had known.

De la Peña, 49, now lives in La Jolla’s Bird Rock neighborhood with his wife, Caroline, and their children, Luna and Miguel.

“Sometimes I get to visit schools in faraway towns and read them one of my books, to talk to them about what life was like growing up in San Diego and how San Diego is the inspiration for many of my stories,” he said.

Those stories have earned him a Newbery Medal, the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award and a place on The New York Times bestseller list. He earned a bachelor’s degree from University of the Pacific and a master’s from San Diego State University.

His latest children’s book, “Patchwork,” illustrated by Corinna Luyken, encourages the twists and turns children’s interests will take as they figure out what they like and who they want to be.

The book is scheduled for release Tuesday, Aug. 30, but La Jollans and others can get a preview when de la Peña visits the La Jolla/Riford Library on Friday, Aug. 26, as part of its Summer Reading Program. The author will read the story, discuss his inspiration and writing process and sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase. Attendance is free.

De la Peña took some time in an interview to talk about his journey as a writer, how reading made him whole and his commitment to telling kids the truth.

Q. Although you later moved to Cardiff, you grew up in National City. How did growing up there influence your voice and point of view as a writer later in life?

A. National City was bustling and working-class and gritty. My parents met at Sweetwater High School. They were teen parents, and everyone I knew lived in National City: my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends. For the first few years of my life, we lived in my Mexican grandmother’s house. ... We struggled at times, but so did everyone around us, and you got the sense that the community was looking out for you. National City left a huge impression on me. It has found its way into many of the books and essays I’ve written.

Then we moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, back when it was quiet and sleepy. We lived in an old house sandwiched between the freeway and a large stretch of greenhouses (that are now gone). I fell asleep to the sound of train whistles and the smell of the Pacific Ocean. My heart rate slowed. I met kids who surfed and had college-educated parents. I feel so fortunate to have known these two disparate and wonderful parts of San Diego. My voice as a writer is a strange melding of the two.

Q. You’ve said that reading made you whole. What did that look and feel like for you?

A. I always thought literature was a world I simply didn’t belong to. Books were for the smart kids, the top students, the ones who would go on to fancy colleges. I was a basketball player. A half-Mexican, working-class kid. The men in my family worked with their hands. To live up to their example, I thought I had to steer clear of anything that might be deemed “too sensitive.” A lot of working-class boys grow up this way, but it leaves a hole inside your chest where emotion is supposed to be. When I finally became a reader, I found a secret place to “feel.” Literature became a personal journey for me, one that nobody else needed to know about. It felt good to experience a range of emotions through books.

Q. Can you talk about your upcoming book, “Patchwork,” and where the inspiration for the story came from?

A. I remember this one “dad” conversation I had back when I was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., for 15 years. I really liked the guy I was talking to, probably because he was into basketball as much as I was. ... On this particular morning, he was talking about his oldest daughter: “She’s an amazing kid,” he said, folding his arms, “but sometimes she just seems a little lost, you know? Like she can’t figure out what her ‘thing’ is.” I nodded supportively. His oldest daughter was only 8, which seemed a tad young for this kind of concern, but what did I know about second-graders? My daughter was only 3.

Since then, I’ve found myself in dozens of similar conversations. Or the flip side of that conversation, where a mom or dad is convinced they know exactly who their child is: “Maria, she’s my dancer,” “Leo’s my little engineer.” How many times, when introducing my daughter, have I led with some variation of, “She’s a huge reader” or “I can’t keep this one’s nose out of a novel”? Parents these days, why are we in such a hurry to label our own children?

“Patchwork” is for all the “lost” kids out there. The ones who have yet to find their “thing.” Or the ones who’ve managed to shrug off the overeager categories we adults keep trying to push them into. “Patchwork” is for the kids who are too busy playing right about now. Experimenting. Following narrow trails that lead to dead-ends. It’s for the kids who keep picking up instruments only to put them back down. I think Walt Whitman had it right when he famously declared, “I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes. That’s what makes each of our twisting, turning journeys so fascinating.

Q. What is it you wanted to say in this work to kids and to the adults in their lives?

A. I have a sheet of paper with a single sentence taped to the wall above my computer: “Do not write what you see, write what will be seen.” My hope as a writer is that I’m able to lift up as many different kinds of people as I can. I want to always err on the side of inclusivity. And yes, “Patchwork” follows a handful of individual characters, exploring how they might evolve over time, but there’s a bigger picture, too. All of our individual lives fit into the intricate patchwork of humanity, where no single path or identity is more beautiful or worthy than another.

“‘Patchwork’ is for all the ‘lost’ kids out there. The ones who have yet to find their ‘thing.’ Or the ones who’ve managed to shrug off the overeager categories we adults keep trying to push them into.”

— Matt de la Peña

Q. One of your young-adult novels, “Mexican WhiteBoy,” was temporarily banned in an Arizona school district, and you’ve talked about managing the balance between preserving children’s innocence and telling them the truth. How are you thinking about this balance within the context of a desire to shield children from any mention of subjects that some adults find uncomfortable?

A. I love this question because it gets to the heart of something I’m always grappling with. What is the job of the writer for the very young? To tell the truth or preserve innocence? To be clear, each parent has to make a similar determination for their own family. As a writer, though, I’ve decided to lean toward the truth. Kids are so much more sophisticated than we give them credit for, and they’re hungry for information. If a kid isn’t ready for a deeper topic in a book, she will usually find a different entry point. She will engage with a book on her terms. It breaks my heart whenever I hear about a book getting banned. ... I accept an individual making the decision to not read a book or to keep it out of their own home because it makes them feel uncomfortable or doesn’t align with their belief system. ... But I don’t understand why an individual would try to determine access to that particular book for the rest of a community.

Q. What’s been challenging about your work as an author?

A. I think all artists struggle with self-doubt. When you first come up with a new story idea, it’s exhilarating, but you’re never able to quite realize that initial inspiration. That’s really frustrating. I find it hard to read any of my books after they’re published. All I see are the flaws and I want to get back in there and fix them.

Q. What has been rewarding about this work?

A. It still blows me away whenever I meet someone who has read one of my books. Or when I get an email or a letter from a reader.

Q. What has this work taught you about yourself?

A. I’ve learned that I can be a very disciplined person. There are some truly brilliant writers out there, people who can churn out beautiful, innovative books in only a few drafts. I’m not one of them. I have to work really, really hard to create something good. Luckily, I’m happy to do the work.

Q. What do you like about Bird Rock?

A. Having lived in Brooklyn, where it’s always so loud and packed with people, I adore the quiet of Bird Rock. I love that everything shuts down early. I love walking the quiet streets after dinner, looking at all the pretty yards and catching sight of the Pacific Ocean here and there.

Matt de la Peña appearance and book launch

When: 10-11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 26

Where: La Jolla/Riford Library Community Room, 7555 Draper Ave.

Cost: Free to attend; copies of “Patchwork” will be available for purchase

Information: bit.ly/3wiqAuk, (858) 552-1657

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.