Matt de la Peña - A Biography
Matt de la Peña was a non-reader who is now a New York Times Best Seller list writer of Young Adult novels and Children's picture books, in collaboration with illustrator Christian Robinson. Growing up in a rough Mexican neighborhood of National City just south of San Diego, California, near the U.S.-Mexican border, de la Peña watched his father and mother start their days of hard work at 5 a.m. just so that the family could stay alive, although with never "quite enough." Matt's own successful education was instrumental in guiding his father's "path to literacy."
Matt entered college because of his prowess as a basketball player, not for his academic achievements. Enrolled on a basketball scholarship at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, far from his near-border home, Matt was challenged to embark on an odyssey of learning in his sophomore year by Professor Heather Mayne.
His education at the University of the Pacific changed his life because of the professors' interactions with him both in the classroom, like that with Religious Studies Professor Larry Meredith, and in personal encounters, like that with English Professor Heather Mayne, who introduced him to the first book he read all the way through, The Color Purple. De la Peña said in a 2015 guest speaker appearance at the University of the Pacific: "I entered Pacific as a basketball player, but I left as a scholar and a writer."
Though he had always secretly written "spoken-word" style poetry, which he never showed anyone, he never entertained the dream of being a real writer one day, especially since he wouldn't read anything that was written until his encounter with The Color Purple. De la Peña went on to earn his Master in Fine Art degree from the San Diego State University while still on a basketball scholarship.
Now, de la Peña has six books published including his two latest, which are the children's picture books: "A Nation's Hope" and "The Last Stop on Market Street," with Christian Robinson. He says his goal as a writer is to show the right side of life on the "wrong side of the tracks": "I think my goal with everything I write ... is to kind of show the grace and dignity on the 'wrong side of the tracks.'" His first book, his debut novel, was Ball Don't Lie (2005). It was made into a film in 2008. De la Peña now lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches creative writing at New York University along with appearing as a guest speaker at high schools and colleges across the country.
Ball Don't Lie - A Summary
Set in East Los Angeles' Lincoln Rec Center, Ball Don't Lie opens with a blast of energy as the minor character Dreadlock Man propels with him onto the basketball court where we find the novel's protagonist Travis Reichard, mostly called Sticky, stands at the free-throw line, with a basketball grasped between his knees, compulsively pulling his shirt out and tucking it back in again, over and over and over, while he waits to be selected to play on a team in a pickup game of basketball. Sticky's compulsive behaviors are the result of having witnessed his mother's death by suicide at the early age of seven. His isolation results from having been in a string of unloving and detrimental foster homes since then.
Told in a rapid-fire and inventive style, the third-person narrative uses flashbacks to unfold the backstory of seventeen-year-old Sticky's lonely and distraught early life. The traumatic loss of his mother is somewhat offset by the fortuitous emergence of Anh-thu into Sticky's otherwise bleak, unsettled life. A Vietnamese-American teen who was abandoned as an infant, Anh-thu is intelligent, hard-working and compassionately affectionate. Understanding the lonely side of life herself, she embraces Sticky after meeting him while preventing him from shoplifting a pair of jeans from the shop where she is a salesgirl.
Sticky's life takes a positive turn, with no small credit given to the good influence of Anh-thu on his life, when he is invited to a prestigious basketball camp. While there, his obsessive compulsions overcome him again as he worries about getting Anh-thu a worthy gift for her upcoming sixteenth birthday. As the consequence of robbing a man at knife-point of his ATM withdrawal--a man who turns out to be a ruthless drug dealer--Sticky is shot in his basketball throwing wrist. In the hospital, Anh-thu, who is now pregnant with Sticky's child, gives him compassion, affection, understanding and deep love.
The bloodletting of the gunshot wound, the in-pouring of Anh-thu's love, acceptance and affection and the upwelling of long repressed tears of sorrow and horror stemming from his mother's suicidal death seem to cleanse Sticky of his anguished past and of his unrest in his own body while opening the possibility of a future of promise before him.