Matt de la Pena thoughtfully explores social class, immigration and mixed-status families in his children’s book, “Carmella Full of Wishes.”
The Newbery Award-winning author recently partnered with Anythink Libraries’ mySummer program to visit seven different libraries throughout the metro area June 15-18 for a reading of “Carmela Full of Wishes.” The mySummer program aims for people of any age to get involved with the organization’s initiative to close opportunity gaps and provide hands-on learning experiences.
This year’s theme is “wishing.”
“This summer is very special; it's all about wishing,” said Julie Crabb, a children’s guide at Anythink Libraries. “So when our group started thinking about what kind of experts we wanted to bring in, Matt de la Pena with ‘Carmela Full of Wishes’ was really at the top of the list — it's a beautiful book, and it talks about wishing and what it means to make a wish.”
“Carmela Full of Wishes” follows the story of a young Latina girl navigating the world in an immigrant community with a mixed-status family. Her father is away, waiting to have “his papers fixed,” while Carmela is learning to find enjoyment in the little things, such as a trip to the laundromat with her brother or the jingle of the bracelets she was given for her birthday.
De la Pena addresses heavy subjects like class and the void of a parent in a subtle manner, while also focusing on underrepresented kids without forgetting they are children first.
Throughout the book, illustrator Christian Robinson visually embraces Mexican culture with images using papel picado, which is traditionally used during Dia de los Muertos and other national holidays or celebrations. Robinson’s stunning artwork accompanies Carmela’s journey through a working-class neighborhood.
“I grew up in a working-class community, and everybody in my entire family is still kind of in those kinds of communities,” de la Pena said. “I try to celebrate those communities in my writing.”
De la Pena’s grandparents immigrated to the U.S. without legal permission from Tijuana, Mexico, to National City, California, where they made a life for themselves. The trip from Tijuana wasn’t a very long one, but it was a difficult journey for them at the time, de la Pena said, and he often draws inspiration for his writing from his grandparents’ experience.
Over 16.2 million people in the U.S. live in mixed-status homes, according to a 2020 survey from the National Immigration Forum. Mixed-status families are where at least one undocumented person lives with U.S. citizens, green card holders or other lawful temporary immigrants.
“That's how my dad grew up,” de la Pena said. “So I wanted to honor his story by telling Carmela's story, but I also want to note that this is a common American story.”
De la Pena said he celebrates writing for these communities, which can oftentimes be underrepresented. Some of his other books, which were inspired by his upbringing, include “We Were Here,” “Last Stop on Market Street” and the young adult novel “Mexican WhiteBoy.”
Praised for tackling race for young readers, “Mexican WhiteBoy” was once banned from a reading curriculum in Tucson, Arizona. A federal judge in Arizona eventually ruled that the state violated the constitutional rights of Mexican-American students by removing the book.
De la Pena also experienced this with another one of his recent books, “Milo Imagines the World.”
“I just realized, wow, the kids I'm writing about and for aren't allowed in this setting to read the book that I wrote for them,” he said.