On the basketball court and in life, Matt de la Peña knows something about taking the shot.
As a teenager, de la Peña says he dreamed of finger rolls in pickup games at San Diego’s Balboa Park. His persistence in pursuing that dream paid off, taking him 500 miles north and a world away to the University of the Pacific on a full-ride basketball scholarship.
A 6-foot-1 guard, de la Peña made an impact on the court, but what he found in the college classroom made an impact on his life. That’s where he was introduced to books like “The Color Purple,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and Junot Díaz’s “Drown.”
“When I finally fell for literature, I fell hard,” de la Peña said.
The self-described “half-Mexican hoop-head” earned a master’s degree in creative writing at San Diego State University and went from reading books to writing them.
In six young adult novels, de la Peña writes about what he knows in “Ball Don’t Lie,” “Mexican WhiteBoy,” “We Were Here,” “I Will Save You,” “The Living” and “The Hunted.” And this year, de la Peña received the Newbery Medal for his 2015 picture book, “Last Stop on Market Street.”
De la Peña’s stories, both in his books and his life, struck a chord with Mariner High School librarian Stephanie Wilson. Wilson was looking for a way to connect students with good role models and decided to try to get de la Peña to the school.
“There was an article he wrote on NPR a few years ago called ‘Sometimes the Tough Teen is Quietly Writing Stories,’” Wilson said. “I sent it to the English department and our principal. The principal said, ‘Get him here.’”
On Tuesday, Oct. 4, Wilson’s own persistence will pay off when the author arrives for a full day of events with students and faculty. However, getting to this point wasn’t easy.
“I started applying for grants and got $1,500 from the Friends of the Mill Creek Library,” Wilson said.
Sue Ramsey, secretary of the Friends group, said the request was a bit unusual. “We have a professional development grant fund,” Ramsey said, adding that normally those requests are for teacher training opportunities. “This was for a whole school. We just thought this one was special.”
Still, more was needed. Some came from school-supporter funds and some came from Wilson's own library budget. In the middle of all that, she went on leave for a year.
“And then, he wins the Newbery,” Wilson said. “I’m not sure our students and maybe some of our staff understand the magnitude of him coming.”
Wilson is going to wring everything she can out of the visit.
“We will have two assemblies on that day, two book signings at lunch and he will work with staff after school in a seminar and Q&A format,” Wilson said. While those events aren't open to the public, de la Peña will be at University Book Store in Mill Creek from 7-8 p.m., Oct. 4, where he is scheduled for a free and open reading and book signing.
For his part, de la Peña says he still can’t quite believe what has happened in his life.
“Growing up, I never could’ve imagined anything like this,” de la Peña said in his comments accepting the Newbery Medal earlier this year. “Me and books? Reading? Nah, man, I was a working-class kid.
“Over the past 10 years, I’ve visited hundreds of schools and met tens of thousands of young people. And so many of them are just like that old version of me. Self-defined nonreaders who spend all day reading the world. My mission as an author is to help a few of them translate those skills to the written word.
“But what if I can nudge a few of these kids toward the magic of books at a younger age? What if I can write a story that offers that tough, hoodied kid in the back of the auditorium a secret place to feel?”