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Kim Tomsic

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review and Interview with Matt de la Peña, author of WE WERE HERE

In author Matt de la Peña's young adult book, WE WERE HERE, three troubled teens believe their crimes and the cost of their damage leave them with nothing left to lose. The boys, Miguel, Rondell and Mong, begin their relationship with spit and fists flying. But somehow this group of teens form an unlikely team and escape their group home to make a daring dash to Mexico. Along their journey of pain, humor, rejection, adventure, love and brutality they find friendship as well as some redeeming value in life.

WE WERE HERE is packed with crazy violence combined with deep and often bizarre conversations and circumstances. It reminded me of a YA version of the movie Pulp Fiction, both disturbing and hilarious. I laughed, I cried, I Googled the author. I had to know more. This book had such a hold on me after I read the last page that I was reluctant to open my next novel, because I knew that would mean the experience I just invested my heart in with Miguel, Rondell, and Mong would fade.

Here's what I learned. WE WERE HERE won the following awards:

*A Junior Library Guild Selection
*ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults*ALA/YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
*2011/2012 Texas TAYSHAS Reading List

After googling, I tweeted:

Kim Tomsic
I had to Google you to see if WE WERE HERE had been nominated for the Printz...it's really amazing!

the reply that came only made me more curious:

Matt de la Pena
Thank you so much. That was a special book for me! Thanks for reading!

So of course I requested a brief interview. Matt graciously agreed.
The Interview:

Kim: Hi, Matt! Thank you so much for agreeing to a brief interview. I was moved by your book WE WERE HERE, so much that when I read the final page, I wanted more and immediately turned to Google for answers. As you know, I sent a tweet to you, singing your praises and wondering if WE WERE HERE had been nominated for the Printz. In your reply you indicated that this “was a special book for you.” Of course that piqued my interest, but I didn’t want a Twitter answer of 140 characters or less, so please give me the Oprah interview answer and tell me why. What made this a special book for you?

Matt: First of all, thank so much for reading the book. I’m so happy you liked it. WE WERE HERE was special because the voice came so naturally. It was the first novel I wrote in first person, and I really kind of locked in with Miguel right away. I feel like I could’ve written that voice for a long time – I guess that’s why so many authors write series. Also, Miguel’s crime was something inspired by one of my basketball teammates in college. It was such an awful crime, yet the guy was a genuinely good guy. I wanted to explore that complexity, as well as the concept of survivor’s guilt. It kind of breaks my heart just thinking about it. And if something breaks my heart (I was raised as a tough, machismo dude) I know it’s a good place to start a book.

Kim: Your characters Miguel, Rondell and Mong truly came to life. I feel like I know these boys…I went to school with them, I’ve seen them at the beach, I’ve passed them on the street. How did they get inside your head and how did you get in the mind of a Juvi? Please tell me more about your research.

Matt: Miguel was the easiest. He sounds a little like I did when I was younger. Rondell ended up resembling a troubled teammate I had, but he was originally inspired by Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN. In fact the Miguel/Rondell relationship is sort of my new-ish, urban version of the George/Lenny relationship. At least that’s how it started. In terms of research, I worked in a group home in San Jose for two years when I graduated college. It was a really rough job. But one of my biggest takeaways was: many of these kids are not what their file says they are. Not exactly.

Kim:  My next question is based on playing make-believe. Let’s pretend this book is non-fiction and Miguel, Rondell, and Mong exist as real teens; if you had the power to help one, to change only one of their lives, who would you help, how, and why that guy?

Matt: Hmmm, maybe Mong wants to do what he does. He seems dead set on it actually. I feel like he’s already there in his mind. And that’s hard to flip. I believe Miguel will be able to take care of himself. I’d just tell him to watch out for girls he meets on little league fields. But Rondell. I’d help him. Because he’s got a great heart and he’s soulful and loyal and talented. But he’s never had a chance. He’s never been exposed to basic education. I would teach him to read and blow his mind with the possibilities that exist for him.

Kim: The fight scenes in WE WERE HERE are pretty intense, graphic, and perfectly messed up (I know Miguel would choose different descriptors, but since this is a PG blog, just go with it). Were you a scrapper or a writer growing up? Please paint a picture of your high school self?

Matt: I’ve been in four fights in my entire life. I’m 2-2. I’ll never fight again because I don’t want to drop below .500. I was a baller who didn’t find books until college. I knew the only way I was gonna get to college was on a hoop scholarship so I gave everything to that pursuit. Wrote secret poetry. Never went to parties. Had two cool girlfriends in HS, really nice girls who believed I could make it. Luckily I did. In college I felt like I woke up and discovered literature and discovered psychology and discovered myself.

Kim: WE WERE HERE was an incredible reading experience—there was tension on every page, the adventure was riveting, my laughter and tears flowed freely, but the most captivating element was Miguel’s dynamic voice. It had a pulse. An NPR program I'd once heard featured a radio announcer who read single lines from various unidentified authors’ work. Even though no additional information was provided, some voices were so strong that the listener could guess who the character was simply based on that one line. Miguel’s voice was that solid. Enough gushing…my question: With your experience as a creative writing teacher at NYU, do you believe writers can learn “voice” or do you believe it’s one of those things—you either have it, or you don’t (and please, no teacher-y answers saying, “everybody is special”)? What steps can a writer take to gain an authentic voice? 

Matt: Great question. Look, there are some writers out there who are brilliant and hilarious and when inspiration hits they can sit down and produce something amazing. I’ve met some here in NY. But I’m not one of them. I’m a working class writer. I clock in early every day and stay late. I revised my first book over a hundred times. Plus my books are all about rhythm. And it takes a lot of tinkering to find the right balance.

I’m not answering the question am I? No. Okay, here’s what I think. This idea that some people were born to be writers is false. I don’t buy it. There are, however, some people who are born with a slightly different way of seeing the world. And if these people are willing to work hard, they’re going to have an easier time locking in on a unique voice. In terms of writing courses, I think you can learn about 90% of the tools you’ll need in your writer’s toolbox. That other 10% is the magical stuff that I don’t even know how to talk about. Voice sometimes slips into that part.

Oh, and I think voice is WAY easier if you’re 100% honest.

Kim: Who is Spencer Figueroa other than the dude to whom you dedicated the book?

Spence is this punk-ass dude living in LA. He’s been my best friend since high school. He put up with a lot hanging out with me back when I refused to work full time and swore I was gonna make it as a writer and bartered with him to pay lower rent.

Kim: I see your agent, Steven Malk from Writers House, will be at the SCBWI’s 40th anniversary Summer Conference and teaching a break-out session “No Holds Barred: An Agent and an Author Give Outspoken Advice on Writing, Submitting, Promoting and Everything in Between”. Will you be at the SCBWI Summer Conference and if you were teaching this class with Steven Malk, what key pieces of advice would you give?

Matt: Sign with Steve Malk. He’s seriously the best move I’ve ever made in publishing. Also, be 100% honest when you sit down to write. Don’t fake it. Don’t chase trends. Be real. If it hurts, it’s gold. If it embarrasses you, it has to go in. If it shames you, it’s the most important ingredient.

Kim: One of the “Events” listed on your webpage includes a September speaking engagement at the detention facility in San Mateo, East Palo Alto, a high school, boys’camp in La Honda. I don’t have the goods to earn a seat in that gym, but if I did, what would I hear?

Matt: I do a lot of these. And I always tell them the truth. I was a reluctant reader when I was their age. I was a punk who got in trouble. I chased girls. The only reason I got to college was because I had a goal and my goal kept me moving forward. Oh, and I’ll be completely honest with them.

Kim:  Last but not least, who would win my fictional b-ball game: the real-life today, 2011 retired Charles Barkley pitted against the back-in-the day, University of the Pacific Matt de la Peña?

Matt: My college coach called me Matt No D la Peña. I wasn’t a big fan of playing D. So maybe it’d be tough to stop the big guy. But if I got the rock I’d do my best to keep it. And I could shoot it pretty good!

Bonus Bonus Bonus...Matt's answers were fun and insightful. I would have loved to have asked a million more questions, but here's a bonus free throw:  Matt mentioned that he revised his first book over a hundred times. That book called BALL DON'T LIE was made into a movie with director Brin Hill. Brin Hill and Matt de la Pena wrote the screenplay together (release date September 2011). The all-star cast includes Ludacris, Nick Cannon, Rosanna Arquette, and Grayson Boucher.

Boulder Bookstore
Tattered Cover
White Rabbit Bookstore
Indie Bound
The Strand
Barnes and Noble

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New York City: Nine Shows Reviewed and Ranked, A Guest Post by Marlo Berberian

A Guest Post by my beautiful niece Marlo Berberian

I guess I'm here to tell you about my amazing week with my mother. Oh, and mom, if you're reading this, THANK YOU!

Sunday: We met up with my cousin and aunt and had molecular engineered food (yum) at WD 50.

Monday: Spent the day in Central Park, row boated(got terrible blisters) and saw Hair. We got tickets last minute and I'm so glad we did. The cast was excellent, hilarious, and naked. Overall, I really enjoyed the show, my only problem was that for the first act the orchestra overpowered the actors, it was a shame. But for Act two the sound was much better and the show was very enjoyable. I kind of want to be a hippie now.

Tuesday: Went to the Strand bookstore (amazing Shakespeare collection and rare $900 copies of certain plays). Later that evening we saw Harry Potter himself in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Such a great show, and the work Daniel Radcliffe put into his role was incredible. There was no hint of an English accent and his dancing was spectacular, as good as the ensembles, which is impressive because he had never danced before the production. His singing was good, nothing special, but still impressive. Now, here's something I think some of you may disagree with: I thoroughly enjoyed this production and I completely enjoyed John Larroquette’s performance, but I think Joel Grey should have won the Tony for Anything Goes.

Wednesday: We saw the matinee of Anything Goes. Yes Sutton deserved best actress, and yes she belted for us(no words can describe). The cast was so on top of their game. Really an impressive show, although I have to agree with Mr. Becker, the swinging doors on the nationals set was a great idea and I actually wish this production had it as well. Later that night, my mother and I caught Catch Me if You Can, another fun show. Not my favorite, but a really great cast. Norbert Leo Butz also deserved his Tony and Aaron Tveit is just really frickin' hot. In fact this whole show is kind of a great big pile of hot, what with the showgirls and Aaron...need I say more?

Thursday: A nice simple day. My mother and I just kind of walked around all day in the Columbus Circle and Central Park West area. It was refreshing, and I had the best spicy edamame at Sushi-a Go Go. We went to this thrift store called Housing Works, and then in the evening we saw Sister Act. I was a little scared for this one. I hadn't really heard anything about it and I was afraid it wasn't going to be good, but it was. I mean, it took a little while to pick up, but once it did...WOW, it really picked up. The talent was incredible and I'm sure some of my enjoyment from this show came from being raised Catholic and having seen absurdly strict and stiff nuns and priests. Also, you'd be surprised by how much a costume designer can accomplish with simple nun habits.

Friday: Good day. My mother and I headed over to 40th to go to The Drama Book Shop. What a wonderful place. We were probably there for 2 hours looking for scenes and monologues for my intimidating junior year. We saw Harry Potter at the Ziegfeld Theatre (which used to be a Broadway theatre, but is now a movie theatre) and the house was practically empty. The movie was excellent, but there were like 900 empty seats, so when people clapped it felt kind of awkward. Later that night we saw the controversial Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. Well.............it was..............something. Visually, it was amazing, so interesting to watch, the $65 million dollar set and the fly system blew my mind. WARNING: THE NEXT FEW THINGS I"M ABOUT TO SAY ARE GOING TO BE VERY BLUNT. The music was terrible, what the heck was Bono thinking? He should've been the one to get fired. The dancing was practically lifeless, there was no energy. The costumes were, in my opinion, distracting. They were creative, yes, and I liked about half of the sinister six's costumes. Peter Parker had no transition and transformation into spider man, there was no arch, it was like, "I'm not Spiderman, I am Spiderman." Both leads however had excellent voices. I'm not sure if I liked when they sang together, but individually they had great voices. This is just one girl’s opinion; some people actually really liked the show. The show has a good message and again, visually it's a masterpiece.

Saturday: We went to the matinee of Priscilla Queen of the Desert . Three drag queens road tripping through Australia. It was certainly entertaining and it won best costumes for a reason. The story was engaging in the beginning of the show, but not carried out very well. It was a flashy, glitzy, and glamorous production, but it's not one of those shows that you would want to see again. It was fun, but only fun. Later that night we went and saw War Horse at the Lincoln Center. All I have to say it that this was the most beautiful, engaging, inspiring, tear jerking show I have ever seen. Brilliant theatre, brilliant production, amazing show, it deserved best play. I wish I could share this production with everyone I know. This show is why I do theatre and it's this kind of show that gives me inspiration.

Sunday: Our last day in the city and my mother and I desperately wanted to see Book of Mormon, so like a week before we left we searched the internet everywhere for seats that weren't $800 each. Finally, we came across two seats, that weren't next to each other, and that had partially obstructed views. We figured, why not try our luck at the seat drawing lottery? We had to get to the theatre 2.5 hours before the performance, stand around with 300 other people trying to win tickets, and put our name into this huge basket. The first 14 seats drawn would be given the front row, and the next 8 would be given slightly obstructed box seats. Believe it or not my name was drawn 3rd and my mother and I received 2 tickets front row center! I never win anything, so this was a miracle to be sure! The show was crude, crass, hilarious, brilliant, and wonderful. It was everything I thought it would be and I'm so happy that I got to see it. Really a great show! It's the kind of show that just puts you in a good mood.

So, that was my trip. It was really lovely and I'm so glad that I can write about theatrical things here. I want to thank my mom again for such a fantastic time.

My show ranking in order of favorites:
1: War Horse
2: Book of Mormon
3: Anything Goes
4: How to Succeed
5: Sister Act
6: Hair
7: Catch Me if you Can
8: Priscilla
9: Spiderman
Nothing was bad at all, but if I had to order them, that's how I would rank them.
-Marlo :)

Have book will travel...whisked away to St. Barth's

Suitcase St. Barth's: a travel video by Renee Berberian

I regularly suggest great books, so load those pages in your luggage and let my sister guide you on an adventure to St. Barthelemy.
Click here for the video: Suitcase St. Barth's

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 14th, Bastille Day...a perfect day to read REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly

Happy Bastille Day, La Fete Nationale! Although I've celebrated in the past by standing on the Champs-Elysees, waving at Jacques Chirac, I've decided to do something less royal this year. In the spirit of giving back, I labor for the people and produce a book recommendation (dramatic military drum roll please)...REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly.
WINNER - 2011 Young Adult Book of the Year - American Booksellers Association.

High School senior Andi is a brilliant musician as well as an academic genius, but the tragic death of her brother has caused her to spiral into a depression. She's failing school, her mother is hospitalized, and her Dad forces her to spend her holiday in Paris (poor dear). In France Andi's father conducts DNA research to determine if a small heart sitting in a medical jar once beat in the chest of the child king, Louis Charles, son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.  Meanwhile, Andi has a find of her own: a 200 year-old diary written by a seventeen-year-old girl who lived with Louis Charles and the family from their time at Versailles up until the parents' beheading. Because Andi pops a ton of feel-good pills, it's hard to distinguish what "really" happens in Andi's world. This historical fiction cleverly weaves the 21st century with the 18th century. The uncertainty is part of the joy of this novel which is packed with adventure, mystery, drama, romance, and comedic relief.

Positives and Negatives:
The story hints at a beautiful message, one of no longer standing by and watching as injustice takes place. There are fabulous secondary characters (like Vijay). There's also a great leap that ties the Green Man of Paris and the girl in the diary (Alex), almost like Phillipa Gregory's THE QUEEN'S FOOL. I found the use of music lyrics and music references heavy, but I still wanted to belt out George Michael's Praying for Time (or even the Black-Eyed Pea's Going Gone...see, now I'm carried away). In regard to the music references, I did enjoy the discovery, inclusion, and clean wrap-up angle on the 18th century musician Malherbeau. Bravo!
Like the dark and winding uncertainty of Paris's catacombs, this historical fiction takes the reader on many exciting twists and turns that keep the pages turning. Tragedy, comedy, romance, history, music...what more could a reader want? A perfect read for Bastille Day, or any day.

Hardcover October 2010 (18.99 Delacorte Books for Young Readers); Paperback release, July 26, 2011 (Ember) $9.99.

  • ISBN-10: 0385737645

  • ISBN-13: 978-0385737647

  • ISBN-10: 0385737637
         ISBN-13: 9780385737630
    Published: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 10/12/2010
    Pages: 496    Language: English  

  • Buy at...
    Boulder Bookstore
    The Strand

    Click here to link to Discovery's Curiosity.com for the best slide show of art inspired by the French Revolution (Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, the escape and capture in Varennes, Guillotine, storming of the Bastille, Robespierre, etc.)

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