Best-selling author built on basketball and books

Matt de la Peña speaks to a group of about 100 people about finding his passion in writing last night in Peplow Pavilon. photo by Cenn Hall
Matt de la Peña speaks to a group of about 100 people about finding his passion in writing last night in Peplow Pavilon.
photo by Cenn Hall

New York Times best-selling author Matt de la Peña visited campus last night to speak about his journey of self discovery through books in the Peplow Pavilion.

De la Peña started by explaining his childhood growing up in a biracial home where his father was Mexican and his mother was white. De la Peña was born when his parents were both very young, and neither attended college.

Despite his career as a writer, de la Peña said when he was a child, he was not much of a reader much less a good student.

“In the end of my second grade year, the teachers pulled my parents into the principal’s office, and they decided I could not move on to third grade, and the reason they gave was that I couldn’t read,” de la Peña said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I can’t even get [into] third grade, I must be a dumb kid.’”

After struggling on the academic platform as a child, de la Peña said he turned his attention to finding something to succeed in.

“When you aren’t good at one thing, you try to find other things that you are good at; this just comes natural as a kid,” de la Peña said. “For some kids, it’s popularity or video games. For me, it was sports, and I was particularly good at playing basketball. So I felt a little validation when I played the game of basketball.”

When he was a teenager, de la Peña’s family moved to a new town, where his new high school was a combination of families who had different backgrounds.

“[It was] mostly a Mexican-American community, but also some kids who grew up with parents who had been to college,” de la Peña said. “I had never met anybody who had been to college who wasn’t a teacher before then, and I was curious.”

De la Peña said this was a new environment for him, one where people were talking about college a lot. It was by being surrounded by people who had been to college or wanted to go to college that pushed de la Peña to work to receive a higher education.

However, de la Peña said his family’s lack of financial resources, and his struggles with academics left him unsure as to how he was going to be able to attend college.

“At that point, I remember giving up on this idea, thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this is why kids like me don’t go to college,’” de la Peña said. “I sort of put it out of my head.”

Eventually, de la Peña said his discouragement turned to anger and frustration.

“Getting pissed off is a powerful thing,” de la Peña said. “It started to make me sick in that moment, and [I tried] to figure out other ways I could pull that off.”

Ultimately, it was the one thing he had always succeeded in that gave de la Peña a chance to be the first one in his family to attend college. He was signed to University of the Pacific in City State on a full basketball scholarship.

“A single goal can change your life, even if you never achieve that goal,” de la Peña said.

While in college, de la Peña said he realized he wasn’t good enough to achieve success as a professional basketball player, but he knew basketball gave him a ticket to further his other goal of pursuing an education.

Throughout the remainder of his college years, de la Peña said he fell in love with the power of books. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and English, de la Peña attended graduate school at San Diego State University, where he received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

Students at last night’s event said de la Peña’s story was inspiring because he was able to find his passion after working hard.

“I thought that he was interesting because I think it is so important to learn about people that are different from you,” Carolyn Stewart, a senior hospitality major, said. “I think what I took from it was that you really need to find something that you are passionate about, which for him was books, and if you just have that passion, it can take you to really cool places.”

After graduating from San Diego State University, de la Peña wrote his first book, “Ball Don’t Lie.” Since then, he has written nine other books, ranging from young adult novels to picture books.