Book Reviews: Celebrating Matt de la Peña

The release of The Hunted on Tuesday marked Matt de la Peña’s tenth published book, so we thought it was time to celebrate the prolific author, who has given us high-voltage stories with deep and believable Latino characters. Along with a handful of others, such as Margarita Engle and Julia Alvarez, Matt is a triple threat in the kid lit world, having authored picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. His rich body of work is known for sharply crafted YA novels that have captured a Pura Belpré honor and other important awards. His picture book Last Stop on Market Street hit the NY Times Bestseller List. In addition, he has been a proponent of increased diversity in children’s literature and is on the advisory committee for We Need Diverse Books. For more information about Matt, visit his website. For an intro to his YA novels, here’s a Latin@s in Kid Lit round-up.


Who is that man at the ship rail and why does he utter such cryptic words to Shy Espinoza before jumping to his death? With this irresistible hook, Matt de la Peña launches a post-apocalyptic coming of age series that begins with The Living and continues with The Hunted, and bursts with all the tension, intrigue, romance and fast-paced action of a cinematic thriller.

Shy is a San Diego teenager. He takes a summer job on a cruise ship to help his single mom pay the bills. Shortly before he sets sail, his grandmother dies a painful death from Romero disease, a mysterious ailment sweeping towns along the California-Mexico border. One of Shy’s coworkers, a super-hot chica named Carmen, has lost a family member to the same disease. When a cataclysmic earthquake hits California, a series of giant tsunamis shatters the cruise ship and takes many passengers and crew members to their graves. Shy ends up on a lifeboat, with a slew of new challenges: circling sharks, rotting corpses and a snobby rich girl whose father owns Lasotech, a pharmaceutical firm with apparent connections to the man at the rail. When the lifeboat reaches an island, Shy allows himself a sigh of relief. But that’s an illusion. A new fight for life has begun.


When Shy and three other cruise-ship survivors finally reach the California coast, they discover a landscape of stunning devastation. (In order to preserve suspense for those who haven’t read The Living, I’ll refrain from naming all the survivors.) In the aftermath of the earthquake and the spread of Romero disease, social order in the quarantined West Coast states has broken down. Armed vigilantes and criminal gangs roam the streets and highways, killing anyone they suspect is infected. Shy and his friends set off on foot for Arizona. They’re on a mission to deliver precious vials of anti-Romero vaccination developed by Lasotech to health officials outside the quarantine zone. Judging by radio reports, Shy’s own family is unlikely to have survived the double whammy of disease and earthquake, but he must shake off such worries to defeat more immediate concerns, namely, bounty hunters on motorcycles roving the desert for a teenager named Shy Espinoza.

BALL DON’T LIEball-dont-lie

Matt de la Peña nails the basketball scene and the gritty world of foster homes in this guy-friendly book packed with action, tension, and emotion. Multiple story lines come together in a dramatic ending that is not at all forced. I love how the author takes on numerous issues–pinning hopes on athletics, interracial relationships, obsessive compulsive disorder, prostitution–without making this an “issue” book. Because at bottom, what it’s really about is Sticky, a ball-playing foster kid who wants to treat his girl right and can’t keep himself out of trouble.





From the author of Ball Don’t Lie comes another excellent book that nails baseball but is about much more.

Danny is wicked gifted when it comes to baseball–he can knocks baseballs out of the park, and his pitching maxes out the meter at the local fair even when he was smashed. But he couldn’t throw anything but wild pitches at the tryouts at his prep school, and not even he can understand why.

His number one theory, though, is that things would be different if his dad were still around. Not just baseball, either. If his dad hadn’t left, then maybe Danny wouldn’t be stuck feeling stupid when his relatives in National City tell jokes in Spanish. (Danny’s mom, who’s white, can’t help him out in that department.) The official word is that Danny’s dad took off to Ensenada, Mexico, but it starts looking like there’s more to the story than that as Danny spends the summer with his dad’s family in National City, a mostly Latino pocket of greater San Diego.

But the eventual revelation regarding Danny’s dad is much less important than Danny figuring out how to be himself, a task made a little easier with the jokey, easy-going crew his cousin Sofia hangs with. Danny’s best friend turns out to be Uno, the same half-black, half-Mexican kid who welcomed Danny to the neighborhood by busting his face at the beginning of the summer. Things are good–but they’re also ugly, the way things are in real life. What matters is that Danny starts finding his footing in that real life, and baseball takes its place as one bad-ass game that helps him bring things into focus without beating up on himself.

I will save youI WILL SAVE YOU

Kidd Ellison has done a terrible thing and look where it’s landed him–in solitary confinement. The trouble started with Devon, a bad-news friend from the group home where Kidd got sent after his mother died. Kidd is part Mexican and comes from the wrong side of the tracks, and Devon, who’s cut from the same background, easily exploits Kidd’s desire to fit in socially. Against his better judgment, Kidd jumps into a shoplifting spree and other ill-advised activities, but Devon is capable of far worse. Why can’t Kidd see the light and shake him off?

Luckily, certain people in Kidd’s life exert the opposite pull, like María, his former counselor at the group home, and Mr. Red, an aging surfer dude with a generous streak, who gives him a job at a beach camp. Then there’s Olivia, a pretty girl living with her own set of scars, who offers Kidd real friendship and just maybe romantic interest.

The books that Olivia reads challenge Kidd’s assumptions about fate, inevitability and self-determination. De la Peña ingeniously uses Kidd’s entries in a “philosophy of life” notebook and his reactions to the literature Olivia introduces as opportunities to plumb Kidd’s backstory and deeper self. This is how we learn that no matter how troubled he may be, Kidd truly wants to figure things out. A short story by Haruki Murakami and the memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, help him frame some of life’s biggest questions. He writes in his notebook: “Were people who they were ‘cause of their genes, or was it more to do with where they were born, and who their parents were, and what they saw growing up.” These are the questions of an honest seeker. Of course, Devon is chillingly skilled at throwing Kidd off the seeker path. Kidd, please get away from Devon, before it’s too late!


After a tragic incident, 16-year-old Miguel Castaneda is sent to a group home for a year. Soon after he arrives, he escapes with Mong and Rondell, and they all head to the Mexican border with the hope of forgetting the past and starting over. Memories and guilt, however, are not easy to shake. Miguel can’t forget what happened no matter how much distance he puts between himself and home. Although temporarily free from juvi, hes not free from punishment. The physical and personal journey force Miguel to process what happened and come to a place of acceptance. Mong and Rondell are battling their own demons, too, as the three make their way to the border. De la Peña’s characters are complex and force us to consider the softer sides of tough boys who have been through a lot and committed crimes. Through them, we consider the a person layers and their potential for healing and change beyond the moments that are documented on records and land them in trouble.

Here are the covers for Matt de la Peña’s other books:










2 comments on “Book Reviews: Celebrating Matt de la Peña

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading Picks for You! | Latin@s in Kid Lit

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