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Arts & Extras: Award-winning children's author helps celebrate library opening

Arts & Extras: Award-winning children's author helps celebrate library opening

Matt de la Pena won the prestigious Newbery Award with a picture book about finding the beauty in an ordinary neighborhood.

Wednesday, he will appear in Roanoke to help celebrate the reopening of a neighborhood library.

The city will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday at 9:30 a.m. for the Williamson Road library branch, which closed in 2016 to undergo a renovation budgeted at $3.8 million. Celebratory activities will continue through the day, including face painting and an evening salsa dance.

The keynote speech, however, takes place Wednesday at 6 p.m., with de la Pena’s visit. “I will talk about books and the power of literacy — especially for working class families like mine,” the Brooklyn, New York-based author wrote in an email. “And I will describe my own journey from a tough border neighborhood into the world of education and stories.”

Copies of his 2016 Newbery Award-winning picture book “Last Stop on Market Street” will be available for sale. He has written six young adult novels and two picture books, starting with his 2005 debut “Ball Don’t Lie.” Most of de la Pena’s works have garnered awards and honors, but “Last Stop on Market Street,” illustrated by San Francisco artist Christian Robinson, hit a high-water mark.

When “Last Stop on Market Street” won the Newbery, de la Pena became the first Hispanic author to receive the award. It’s also rare for the Newbery to go to a picture book — “Last Stop” is only the second to do so since the award’s establishment in 1922.

“Last Stop on Market Street” was also named a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.

De la Pena attended college on a full basketball scholarship, and his athletic background informs his early novels. His Newbery-winning picture book, on the other hand, tells a deceptively simple story. One Sunday after church, young CJ takes a bus ride with his nana. Along the way, he sees things other kids have that he doesn’t. When he complains, his nana has wise responses that seem sure to stick for the rest of CJ’s life.

Sheila Umberger, director of Roanoke City Public Libraries, said she heard de la Pena speak at a conference and was so impressed she invited him to present at the dedication. To her delight, he accepted.

The author responded to a few questions via email about factors that went into “Last Stop on Market Street.”

Mike Allen: “Last Stop on Market Street” is very poetic. Does poetry inform your writing?

Matt de la Pena: I started out writing spoken word poetry all through junior high and high school and into college. I loved the rhythms and music of that kind of poetry. For me, writing a picture book is very similar to writing a spoken word poem — except an illustrator then comes along and makes it bigger and better with the visual story.

MA: You started out with a novel that ties into your background as an athlete. What made you decide to venture into picture books?

MP: I wrote six novels before I wrote a single picture book. But I always knew I’d eventually go back to writing some form of poetry, too. I still write novels, of course, but I’m so happy I get to do picture books too. I also have a three year old daughter. And we read a ton of picture books together. So I’m immersed in the genre.

MA: Almost all of “Last Stop on Market Street” takes place on a bus, which functions like a mini-neighborhood. What made you choose that setting?

MP: I think America undervalues public transportation. I live in New York City where you can actually watch your path through the city by observing who gets on and off the train. You can be underground and still know exactly where you are. What I love most about New York and San Francisco is that public transportation transcends class. You will have a banker sitting beside a beggar. In car cultures it’s not like that. If you’re on the bus it’s because you have less. I like the way all these characters interact.

MA: Is Nana based on a real person? Who or what does she represent?

MP: She’s a mix of people really. I met Christian Robinson’s grandma while I was writing the book. And she was so refined and classy. But I also drew on my own dad as well as a few characters from books. For me, she is a path to CJ being able to see his city (and himself) as beautiful.

She’s also the voice of pragmatism. CJ has experienced a small positive change by the end of the book, but she doesn’t make a huge deal out of it. She just pats him on the head and ushers him onto the next part of their day. I love subtle recognitions of childhood growth.

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