Matt de la Peña on the Boy Who Became 'The Man of Steel'

Posted by Marie on March 1, 2019
Matt de la Pena
Matt de la Peña is a New York Times-bestselling and Newbery Award-winning author of both children's books and young adult novels, including Mexican Whiteboy and We Were Here. His 2018 release, Love, was a Goodreads Choice Award nominee in last year's Best Picture Book category.

De la Peña's next book, Superman: Dawnbreaker, is the latest installment in the DC Icons series, which includes Wonder Woman: Warbringer, Batman: Nightwalker, and Catwoman: Soulstealer.

Goodreads interviewed de la Peña by email to discuss the many challenges facing a teenage Clark Kent, including his status as an "outsider" in his hometown of Smallville.


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Goodreads: So many readers are excited about Superman: Dawnbreaker! How did you become involved with the DC Icons series?

Matt de la Peña: I was so honored when Random House approached me about this project. I remember thinking, "Superman? Me? Will I really be able to live up to one of our most iconic American narratives?"

And then I found out who was writing the other superheroes in the series—Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, and Sarah J. Maas—and then I got REALLY nervous. Let's put it this way: I know I’m incredibly fortunate to be a part of this, working alongside such amazing people.

GR: Superman has a very rich mythology. How did this influence your take on the "Man of Steel"?

MP: At first I was really intimidated by the extensive canon out there. I worried that I would mess it up somewhere, but ultimately I realized I just have to lean into my own vision of Superman, which takes into account much of the current social and political context in America.

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GR: Why do you think Superman has remained so iconic over the years?

MP: I think it's because he's OG. He helped create the superhero genre. And while many fascinating and timely new superheroes have come along since, Superman is one of the genre's elders. And I think many of us have respect for the roots of the superhero convention.

GR: Superman: Dawnbreaker tells the story of a much younger Clark Kent. What are some of the biggest challenges he's facing?

MP: I tried to tell a story where the contextual world of Smallville (acting as a conduit for America) sort of mirrored the internal struggles of Clark Kent. This is a common approach to storytelling, of course, but for me it was heightened because of the current political discourse around the topic of immigration.

This is a hot-button issue, as we all know. But the job of the writer is not to provide answers but merely ask important and/or interesting questions. So the two biggest challenges for Clark in the novel are what's happening politically in Smallville and his increasing awareness of his own "outside" status.

GR: Superman often gets criticized for being "perfect." What would you say are his flaws?

MP: I think Superman's greatest challenges are actually psychological. He feels the need to protect his identity, which means he can't truly reveal himself to anyone outside the house, which pushes him away from people. He also feels the burden of protecting a world he can't fully be a part of, which is complicated.

And maybe my favorite Superman predicament of all: He's so powerful in so many ways, yet he lives his life by a certain idealistic code (one that he's still formulating as a teen). This idealism, though noble, sometimes acts as a foil in today's cynical world. So it's almost like his very construction is anachronistic, which makes him a fascinating character to write.

GR: You’ve described Superman as "the ultimate immigrant." Can you elaborate on this?

MP: In a time when we are feverishly trying to define who does and doesn't belong in this country, we should also force ourselves to look more closely at our greatest American icons. Superman is literally an alien. (Some prefer the term refugee instead of immigrant.)

It was fascinating to explore this territory in the book. So, in addition to the requisite action and world-saving stakes expected in a superhero story, I'm hoping readers will also consider what it means to "belong" in a rapidly changing America.

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GR: We know that you mostly write realistic fiction. What was the most fun part about writing Clark's superpowers?

MP: I loved writing scenes where Superman was experiencing a new power for the first time. That's what adolescence already is; we're trying to process these new powers coming on. Well, with Superman the powers were magnified. He's learning to process the ability to fly! It was so fun watching him try to harness his emerging powers.

GR: Our readers have voracious appetites. Which books would you recommend to our YA fans?

MP: This is my favorite question: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo; I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez; Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson; On the Come Up by Angie Thomas; The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton; Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds; and We Are Okay by Nina LaCour.

GR: And finally, which books are currently on your Want to Read shelf?

MP: Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai; Heavy by Kiese Laymon; The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison; and Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson.



Matt de la Peña's Superman: Dawnbreaker will be available on March 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf! Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Gbolahan (new)

Gbolahan So, I don't really have anything to say, just that I'm the first to comment and that has NEVER happened before.

Huh. There's always a first time, I guess.

On to Breaking Dawn.


message 2: by Robert (new)

Robert I’ve been curious about this book as a Superman fan however I would like to explain that deeper questions about immigration will not come about in relation to Supes.

I’ve engaged in many arguments about this and many conservatives refuse to entertain the idea that Superman should be political. These people believe “politics” shouldn’t be involved with comics, regardless if it’s some vintage official house advertising about being accepting of refuges. Superman’s status is irrelevant and holds no concern over real life. Pointing out that he is an immigrant/refugee only gets whining that Supes ought not be used to further YOUR politics. Regardless of how hopeful and symbolic Supes is, a nice portion of fans still hold shocking nationalistic and discriminatory views and simply don’t care about being empathetic.


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