Matt de la Peña

Matt de la Peña’s ‘Carmela’ Writes the Book on Watsonville—For Kids

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson pen ‘Carmela Full of Wishes,’ set in Santa Cruz County

There is no explicit mention of Watsonville in Matt de la Peña’s new children’s picture book Carmela Full of Wishes. To most readers, the reference to “Freedom Boulevard” early on in the story of a young Latina girl’s birthday outing with her older brother may be merely a particularly on-the-nose socio-political metaphor.

But residents of Santa Cruz County know otherwise. Carmela is clearly a Watsonville story.

Celebrated children’s and young adult author de la Peña—who won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2016 for his book Last Stop on Market Street—is not exactly a Watsonville guy. But he does have a direct connection: about a decade ago, his parents Al and Roni de la Peña moved there from their longtime home near San Diego. Roni has been working as a teacher at Starlight Elementary School ever since.

In fact, it was during a visit with his parents in Watsonville that de la Peña, the author of several award-winning picture books for pre-adolescent readers and novels for teens, got the idea for Carmela. “I was kinda new to picture books at the time,” he says. “And one time, I heard this little boy say to his teacher, ‘Hey Miss, look. The sky is full of wishes.’ He was pointing to the spores of a dandelion floating in the wind. From that day on, I’ve been trying to write this book.”

On Oct. 21, de la Peña and Robinson will again visit Watsonville to mark the book’s publication and celebrate Watsonville’s role in it. The free event, to take place at the Watsonville Veterans Memorial Building, begins at 4 p.m. and features a book signing, visual art and drama centered on the book, and a dinner. The event is sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Carmela Full of Wishes is about a young girl following her brother through the streets of Watsonville on his round of errands. With a dandelion in her hand, she is contemplating what her birthday wishes should be. One of them is to see her father once he gets his “papers fixed.” De la Peña, who is of mixed-race heritage, has made it his mission to write stories of families in what he calls “mixed-status” circumstances in which at least one family member is undocumented.

“This book is kinda about immigration,” he says. “But it’s also not about immigration. It’s about a brother and a sister. I like having picture books with layers.”

The book evokes Watsonville’s agricultural orientation—it may have more references to manure than any other picture book on the market—while also serving to depict the experiences of a child engaged in the daily life of the city.

“I definitely wanted the grit of the neighborhood to be there,” says de la Peña, who was born and raised in National City, a predominantly Latino community between San Diego and the Mexican border. “I grew up right next to this massive stretch of greenhouses and we would ride our bikes through them. One of the memories that sticks with me the most is the smell of manure. I knew where I was when I smelled that. That’s what home smelled like.”

Like many writers of color, de la Peña hopes to present Carmela to two audiences: “It’s really important for a Mexican-American girl to see herself as the hero of a story. But it’s equally powerful for other people to read about Carmela to have more empathy and understanding. The opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes is a great gift of literature.”

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson will talk about their new book on Sunday, Oct. 21, 4 to 7 p.m., at the Watsonville Veterans Memorial Building, 215 E. Beach St., Watsonville, free.

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