The emotions poured over Matt de la Peña that evening in Chicago. Emotions he felt the moment he saw Christian Robinson’s illustrations. The illustrations that led him to write Last Stop on Market Street, and the illustrations that—along with his artful words--brought de la Peña the Newbury Medal and placed his book into schools across the country. The illustrations that brought him to the Chicago Children’s Theater that night in 2018 when he saw Last Stop on Market Street performed on stage.
“I can’t believe it’s being performed. What a miracle. It just blew me away. How is this possible?” he asked. “It kind of reminds you of the moment I got those illustrations for the first time. Here are these illustrations you never even considered. Now, this is in the hands a talented writer, director, actors and you just go ‘Wow. Look what they did with this tiny little story. It’s just crazy.’”
How this one-time college basketball player wrote one of the most beloved children’s books in the country is a story that is a little crazy, a little serendipitous and more than a little touching. It features writer’s block, an eye-opening career transition and more than a year of de la Peña writing, rewriting and sweating every word—hundreds of times.
The story behind Last Stop on Market Street’s creation started when de la Peña’s agent sent him a Robinson drawing of an African-American boy and his grandmother on the bus. In a fortuitous twist, the illustration coincided with a book for young adults de la Peña was trying to write about seeing the beauty in a working-class neighborhood.
“It opened my eyes to maybe a different medium. Instead of a novel, a picture book,” he said. “I had a different sense of characters, but the same theme before I saw the picture. But when I saw that picture, I saw this idea. Maybe this can be about seeing the beauty in your neighborhood. It wasn’t working out for a young adult novel.”
This is where de la Peña’s self-described “inefficient process” kicked in. He had little experience with picture books. His first draft took three months to write. He said from there, his obsession with the music of the language—how the words flowed together in a musical structure—sent him on another four-month journey that featured more than 10 revisions. Because picture books are read out loud, de la Peña was obsessed with more than the story. The words had to flow in a melodic rhythm.
“The bummer about this medium is sometimes you’ll spend two days looking for one specific word. You know it’s there. You can’t access it and you’re searching so hard for it and you have nothing to show for it, even though you’re working eight hours a day,” he said. “When you do discover that word and that sound, you have that euphoric moment and the whole book comes together.”
That four-month process featured de la Peña obsessing about the ending. He thought his original ending was “too quiet.” So he spent three weeks writing alternate endings—before going back to his original one.
Finally pleased with his year-long labor of love, de la Peña finished Last Stop on Market Street in 2015. He and Robinson went on to other projects and didn’t think much about it.
Until the award season. Last Stop on Market Street won the 2016 Newbury Medal, the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor.
“That’s when it became a different thing,” de la Peña said. “It was a book that would be in every school, every state and every city library. That’s when you have a different proposition. Kids are going to get it. Not just some schools—all schools will have it. That’s what blows you away.”
It still blows de la Peña away. The one-time University of the Pacific basketball guard, who earned an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State because four professors surreptitiously submitted his application behind his back, remains thankful the world found a place for his “tiny little story” about gratitude, kindness and a boy finding the good in the world.
“I’ve always been interested in writing about diversity. I think back to when I was a new writer. That was a super niche,” he said. “You couldn’t expect to make much money. But I didn’t want to write anything else,” he said. “I always knew what was interesting to write about, but the world changed more to having a thirst for books with diverse characters. I wasn’t at the right place at the right time early, but I watched the field shift around me and audiences and publishers became more interested in stuff I had been writing about the whole time.”
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