Though it's not due out until October of this year, I was able to get my grubby hands on Matt's upcoming novel for teens, We Were There (Delacorte Press/Random House). I've been a long time fan of Matt's work, dating back to that day browsing the Teen shelves in the Barnes & Noble in McAllen TX. But if I'm gonna be up front about this, I have to say that when I first saw the Spanish surname, and then saw that he was being published by Random House, my own publisher, I didn't want to spend the bucks on this book, this Ball Don't Lie novel. I think it had to do with me being jealous of the guy, who I'd never met, didn't want to meet. Or maybe it had to do with my wanting to be the house's only Latino YA male writer (though I know there are more than just Matt and me, but I was blinded, maybe?). Or whatever. Maybe I didn't have the cash on me at the time, and then the next time I came in I forgot that he was even there.
Eventually I did get to meet the guy, in San Antonio, and Adrienne Waintraub at RH must've sent me a copy of Ball Don't Lie, then in paperback already, so that I could, if I wanted to (fat chance! right? knowing what you know about my feelings described above) be up on other folks who'd be attending either TLA or NCTE. She also sent me copies of Dana Reinhardt's first two titles. All I'm saying is, I shouldn't've read his book, man. Because if I hadn't I wouldn't've been so kicking myself on the backside for not having read him before getting a free copy from AW, and I wouldn't've been thinking, Okay, I might want to meet the guy who wrote this novel. And then I did meet the dude, and it turns out he's an awesome guy to boot. Real buena gente, I'd call him back in deep South Texas, good people, and real, as in a lot and authentic both. Back then he was talking about his next book that he was working on, this Mexican WhiteBoy manuscript that he was excited about because he would be exploring some stuff about race, ethnicity, language, being and not being a part of a culture, and the like. I'm happy we hit it off.
We've met again a couple times at different functions, and always it's great to hear him talk about his writing, his work teaching, what he's reading. And about his life. And I tell him about my wife and boys, what I'm reading, my teaching, etc. And the last time we met, fall 2008 for NCTE, again in San Anto, he told me about this new book of his. He said, first, that it would be so very different from what he'd already done in the first two books. Not a sports-based story (though there is some hoops in this one too, but not as a backdrop like in the first two). Dealing with others sorts of struggles. I didn't get much in the way of plot, or character, or even the process. He did joke that he kept the language cleaner in this book than in the first two. (It came up because I've told him that his use of graphic language is what is keeping his books out of the classroom across the country; I'm a teacher in Texas, a teacher of teachers, I know). And I got no clue what he meant by "keeping it cleaner than the other two," because language again will be an issue. But I'll tell you this much, the characters are so very compelling, the story itself (though seemingly nothing is happening except for three group home kids escape, making off with the group home's petty cash fund, and head south to Mexico) is very moving. I grow to feel for these boys who I'd maybe normally dismiss if I saw them walking down the hallway at school where I used to teach, or down the ways at the mall. Boys I'd like to avoid because trouble is very much written in their faces, in their struts as they saunter down the breezeway, in their flat nothing looks as they pass you by. Trouble-makers, who cares about them? Well, Matt makes you care about them. Makes me, anyhow. And hopefully you, too. And, it's a book like this one that will so appeal to young men today who are facing similar struggles as Miguel, Rondell, and Mong. Maybe not to the same extent or in the same way, but kids looking for a way, not a way out, but a way to someplace different where they can move forward. And Matt's writing, in general, is the kind of writing that high school teachers can feel comfortable teaching in an English class because it is writing that blows away any kind of categorization. That is, some teachers might feel iffy about teaching YA lit because it's this or that. Not Matt's stuff. It's got the makings of becoming canonical. Lasting.
Maybe I'm saying all this because I did read the dude way back when I got a book of his for free, or because I've met him and we've become friends, or maybe because it's the solid truth that I'm telling. Whatever, I'm saying so. So there! It's the book to look for this year.