Author Study – Matt de la Peña

Three Reasons Matt de la Peña is a Picture Book Rockstar

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.

What made Last Stop on Market Streetthe most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?” We will take a look at a few of the things that set this book apart.


Poetic Language

Matt de la Peña uses several poetic techniques in Last Stop on Market Street. He points out in his Newbery Acceptance Speech that, at one time, the book was a spoken word poem. He remarked on how proud he was of the “music of the language” in it. Writers, take note – he said he was proud of it after he’d completed 70 drafts!


Sensory Words

Last Stop on Market Street is full of sensory language, which is one of the ways poets can capitalize on word choice. He uses sensory language in ways that are surprising and fresh. There are too many to list them all, but here is just a sampling of some of the sensory language:


Smells: “outside smelled like freedom” and “smelled like rain”

Sounds: “bus creaked to a stop”

Sight: “graffiti-tagged windows”


In A Nation’s Hope, written in free verse, he uses sensory language even more liberally:


Sounds: “…crowd buzzing and bets/bantered back and forth”

Touch/Feel: “The Bronx night air thick with summer”

Sight: “his opponent was a blur of fists and footwork”


One of the things in a poet’s bag of tricks is using personification to really bring an object to life. de la Peña doesn’t overuse these tools. He uses them at just the right moment.

In Last Stop on Market Street, Nana is talking about the trees when she asks CJ, “Don’t you see that big one drinking through a straw?”

And the bus CJ and Nana ride “sighed and sagged.”

Personalizing these inanimate objects makes them feel real and helps the reader to connect with the surroundings.


The Take Away

 Last Stop on Market Street is a slice-of-life story. The reader follows CJ, who goes to a soup kitchen with his Nana by bus. Along the way, he compares himself to other kids who don’t have to do what he does, and he wonders about people who are different from him. It is a journey for CJ, both literally and figuratively. CJ changes on that short journey, and in a metaphor for life, the journey is the story.

In A Nation’s Hope, the reader follows Joe Louis on his journey to be a champion boxer. He is fighting not only in the boxing ring, but he is also fighting a bigger battle in segregated Jim Crow America.

Both of these stories work on two levels, just as the best picture books do. They contain an external journey and an internal journey, leaving the reader with a take-away.

With just a few words, de la Peña manages to make large statements. CJ’s Nana in Last Stop on Market Street is a lady full of wisdom. When CJ talks about a blind man they meet, she says, “Some people watch the world with their ears.” And commenting on their surroundings, she tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

In A Nation’s Hope, de la Peña uses poetic lines to deliver the same type of poignancy. When Joe Louis wins a big fight, he describes the scene with that poignant imagery: “The entire stadium in pandemonium/white men hugging black men/and black men hugging back.”

These few words carry weight. They give the reader something to ponder and something to take with them.

In Finding the Music in Your Storytelling Voice, Matt shares his very first draft of Last Stop on Market Street and brings us into his revision process showing us how changing a few words and their beats turned this manuscript into one extraordinary book. Click below to see how Matt’s techniques can help you find the music in your manuscript.

Click here to find the music in your manuscript!

Marcie Flinchum Atkins has been an elementary educator for 19 years. She is currently a PYP/IB librarian in Falls Church, Virginia by day and writes books for children in the wee hours of the morning. She has a M.A. and M.F.A. in Children’s Literature from Hollins University. She blogs about mentor texts at: You can follow her on Twitter @MarcieFAtkins.