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Acclaimed author visits SHMS after students raise money

Matt de la Peña led assembly, writing workshops at school


by: MARK MILLER - Young adult author Matt de la Pena speaks to a student assembly in the St. Helens Middle School gymnasium Monday, Feb. 24. Principal Carol Dowsett said students raised money to bring de la Pena, whose most recent book 'The Living' was published last year, to the school.Students at St. Helens Middle School listened and laughed Monday, Feb. 24, as Matt de la Peña told them the story of how he became a writer.

De la Peña, a young adult author whose books have received award nominations and critical acclaim, came to St. Helens Middle after being invited by language arts teacher Charles Sanderson — and after students at the school raised money for the visit.

“We ended up raising a thousand dollars to make it happen,” Sanderson said Wednesday. Students brought in “Pennies for de la Peña,” raised money at a school dance and donated their own money to pay for the author visit.

One student, Seth Rivera, emptied his personal savings account — more than $200 — for the visit, earning recognition from de la Peña himself on Facebook.

“He said he did it because he's mixed race too,” de la Peña wrote. “And he wanted his classmates to be exposed to my books because they feature mixed-race characters. Seth, man. His savings account is at zero now. But I will be a life long fan of his forever.”

At a morning assembly in the school gymnasium, de la Peña talked about growing up poor in southern California and explained how he became a writer. He told humorous anecdotes about guarding future NBA star Steve Nash in a college basketball game, trying and failing to impress a girl in his class by writing her love poetry, and being self-conscious about playing the guitar.

“I believe you are what you do when nobody's watching,” de la Peña told students.

Later on Monday, de la Peña sat down with groups of students, including students from St. Helens High School, for a series of writing workshops.

“We're talking about seventh-graders from St. Helens Middle School, and he's sharing writing activities that he does with his ... graduate students,” Sanderson said.

Sanderson praised de la Peña for being “reachable and approachable” in talking to and working with students.

“He was just great at making young people feel really good about themselves as writers,” said Sanderson.