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Matt de la Peña

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Pacific News

Commencement speaker announced for 2018 ceremony

Dec 11, 2017

University of the Pacific announced today that New York Times best-selling and Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña '96 will be the featured speaker at the university's main graduation ceremony on May 12 at the Alex G. Spanos Center in Stockton.

"I am honored by the invitation to speak at commencement," said de la Peña, who graduated Pacific with a bachelor of arts degree in English while on a basketball scholarship. "My time at University of the Pacific certainly changed my life and has been invaluable. I wouldn't be where I'm at in my life without it. I entered as a basketball player, but I left as a scholar and a writer."

Since turning his tassel in 1996, life has been a remarkable journey for the Southern California native. De la Peña earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from San Diego State University and authored several young adult novels and picture books. Earlier this year, de la Peña's book "Miguel and the Grand Harmony" was released by Disney in both English and Spanish. The book features a beautiful original story based on the characters of the recently-released Disney/Pixar film "Coco," as well as vibrant stylized artwork by Ana Ramirez. His 2015 book "Last Stop on Market Street," which was ranked No. 1 on The New York Times Bestsellers list, won the 2016 Newbery Medal, the top U.S. prize in children's literature. De la Peña is the first Hispanic author to be awarded the Newbery Medal.

"Matt has been 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 honored to have him be part of this remarkable celebration, said Pacific President Pamela A. Eibeck.

De la Peña was born in National City and never considered becoming a professional writer even though he had notebooks full of spoken word-style poetry, which he did not share with anyone. But during his years as a student at Pacific, life changed.

"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 said. "It didn't take long for me to realize the incredible opportunity I had at Pacific with a basketball scholarship, which opened up a whole new world to me."

In an essay for National Public Radio's "Code Switch," de la Peña wrote about the day when a former Pacific professor stopped him on campus and gave him a copy of the book "The Color Purple."

"My world changed the day professor Heather Mayne sought me out in the middle of campus during my sophomore year. I took the book with me on our next basketball road trip, to New Mexico State," he wrote. "I needed to find out why my professor had connected me to this one specific book."

He finished the book in just four days, he said, and that faculty member's take-away from the novel remains with him today. "My professor said something I will never forget: even in the harshest and ugliest of circumstances, she explained, there's still hope."

De la Peña lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife Caroline and their daughter Luna. He teaches creative writing at New York University and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.

Career Highlights

  • De la Peña's debut novel "Ball Don't Lie" was published in 2005. In 2008, the book was made into a major motion picture starring Ludacris, Nick Cannon, Emelie de Ravin, Grayson Boucher, and Rosanna Arquette. "Ball Don't Lie" was named as an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA-YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.
  • In 2012, his novel "Mexican WhiteBoy" was banned from Tucson, Arizona, schools as a result of the termination of the Mexican American Studies programs. Scheduled to speak to a group of high school students in Tucson shortly after, de la Peña donated his speaking fee to buy copies of the book to give to the students. "I want to give back what was taken away," he told Samantha Neville, a reporter for the school newspaper, The Cactus Chronicle. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) honored de la Peña in 2016 as the recipient of the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award, given for his efforts to fight censorship through both his words and his actions in Tucson.
  • In 2018, his fourth picture book, "Love," illustrated by Loren Long, and fifth picture book, "Carmela Full of Wishes," illustrated by Christian Robinson, will be released by Penguin.


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