Alumnus Matt de la Pena takes inspiration from Pacific in new children’s book

cover art for the book Patchwork

Cover art for "Patchwork" by New York Times best-selling illustrator Corinna Luyken.

Newbery medal-winning author Matt de la Pena’s ’96 newest children’s book explores the many possibilities within us all.

Patchwork” weaves together the stories of five children (including a dancer who is also a computer coder; a basketball player who could be a poet) to share the empowering message of human potential.

“Each one of us is a patchwork of different things, the experiences and passions we have had, failures we have had. But also, we fit into this bigger patchwork of humanity,” de la Pena said.

The idea for the book initially came to him through observations of his 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

“I am quick to say, ‘my daughter, she's the reader and my son, he likes to see how things work. He’s going to be an engineer. But I think when we label children, the weight of those labels hangs on their shoulders,” he said. “I wanted to celebrate the fact that all of us are on this journey, and we contain multitudes of possibilities.”

De la Pena solidified the idea as he prepared to give Pacific’s commencement address in 2019 when he received an honorary doctorate.

“I was thinking about what I took away from Pacific and how I evolved while I was there,” he recalled. “Leading up to the commencement speech, I started to look at this little piece of writing that I thought could be a picture book and revised it thinking of the commencement speech.”

He continued to tweak the story until landing on its current version, which he read to graduates. 

The message in his book reflects his journey to becoming a writer. Growing up, de la Pena viewed himself solely as a basketball player; attending Pacific shifted his mindset. 

“Heather Mayne, who was in the English Department at the time, saw something in him and gave him “The Color Purple” to read,” said Professor of English Camille Norton, who also taught de la Pena.  “Reading that novel completely transformed him … We have the capacity to mentor our students quite closely here, and he's a great example of somebody who completely changed his life as a writer.”

De la Pena has gone on to write widely read children’s books including “Carmela Full of Wishes,” “Milo Imagines the World” and “Last Stop on Market Street,” which was a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller and received the Newbery Medal in 2016. The award is one of the most prestigious honors for children’s literature.

“I always tell people, I walked onto the campus at Pacific as a basketball player, and I left as an intellectual. Without that experience, I don't know if I would have ever found my voice as a writer,” de la Pena said.

For current Pacific students trying to find their own voice, de la Pena’s advice: make mistakes.

“This is such a great opportunity to play, to make mistakes, to try new genres and read outside your comfort zone because the stakes are low,” de la Pena said. “If you do become a professional writer, some of that time to play evaporates.

“Also, read, read, read. The best writing teacher in the world is great literature.”