Newberry Award-Winning Author to Speak at Pacific’s Commencement

As the date of Pacific’s Commencement ceremony draws nearer, exciting new details have come to
light concerning the proceedings of the event. This past week, it has been announced that the
featured speaker for the all-university commencement on the eleventh of May will be award-
winning children’s author Matt de la Pena, who graduated from Pacific with a Bachelor’s degree in
English in 1996 before going on to receive an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State
University.
De la Pena’s writing career has been marked by several successes since his graduation from Pacific.
He has earned the distinction of being the first Hispanic-American author to win the Newberry
Medal, the highest award available in the realm of children’s literature, for his 2015 book The Last
Stop on Market Street, which was also ranked as #1 on The New York Times Bestsellers list. Prior to
this, his first novel Balls Don’t Lie was awarded both the ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and
the ALA-YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. His 2012 novel Mexican Whiteboy also had the
honour of being banned from Tucson, Arizona—an action that prompted De la Pena to provide free
copies to the students with his own money, in an effort to “give back what was taken away”. This
earned him the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award, courtesy of the National Council of
Teachers of English.
His works have lead him to be described as an influential figure in advancing diversity in children’s
literature. President Eibeck has said about De la Pena that he is “a champion of diversity in children’s
literature through his award-winning work and as a prolific speaker. His success is inspirational to
our students and our community, and we are honoured to have him be a part of this remarkable
celebration.”
De la Pena has argued that relegating non-white narratives to the category of “diverse” or “ethnic”
contributes to the long-standing practice of silencing voices from American subcultures, and has
spent years insisting on the importance of these perspectives. “Sometimes when you grow up
outside of the reach of the American Dream, you’re in a better position to record the truth,” he said.
“That we don’t all operate under the same set of rules. That our stories aren’t all assigned the same
value in the eyes of decision-makers.”
De la Pena credits University of the Pacific with inspiring his love for literature. “At University of the
Pacific, I discovered a love for literature and nurtured that into something that would become a
huge part of my life,” he says. “It didn’t take long for me to realize the incredible opportunity I had in
front of me.”
Originally from National City, he attended Pacific on a basketball scholarship. While an English major,
he kept his spoken-word poetry to himself and had little interest in publishing his literature until Dr.
Heather Mayne presented him with The Color Purple, which he interpreted as communicating the
message that hope can always be found even in the deepest despair. He claims it is this message
that he has hoped to send through his literature and speeches, and which he will hope to inspire in
this year’s graduating students.

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Jo Ann Kirby

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