Picture book writers are like poets. They have to use just a few words to convey their story, and they have leave room for the illustrator. The 2016 Newbery Award Winner, Matt de la Peña, is a picture book writer with the hand of a poet. de la Peña is also a middle grade and young adult novelist, but for this author study, we will focus on what he does as a picture book writer in both of his picture books: Last Stop on Market Street illustrated by Christian Robinson and A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
Matt de la Peña Breaks New Ground
When the 2016 Newbery Award was announced, the fact that it had been awarded to a picture book was big news. There has been some argument over whether Last Stop on Market Street is the first picture book to be graced with this honor. In 1982, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, also won the Newbery. It does have the trim size of a picture book and is fully illustrated. However, in my opinion, it is a collection of poems in which the illustrations are independent from the text. Typically, a picture book relies on the illustrations to tell part of the story.
Regardless of which side you fall on in the is-this-the-first-picture-book-to-win debate, it is clear that de la Peña’s win for a picture book was a big victory for advancing picture books in the marketplace. It also elevated a contemporary (as opposed to historical) and diverse story to the forefront.
Also of note, in 2006, Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book, Show Way, illustrated by Hudson Talbott, received a Newbery Honor.