Ranking Matt de la Peña’s six YA novels

Back in February, I happened to stumble across Matt de la Peña’s first novel, Ball Don’t Lie, and immediately fell in love with the main character, Sticky, a troubled 17-year-old foster kid who found refuge on the basketball court. While our childhoods weren’t quite the same, I saw a lot of myself in Sticky. As a high-school athlete and product of a single-parent household, I spent countless hours playing basketball at the local Boys & Girls Club and YMCA with a colorful cast of characters.

Needless to say, I finished the book in a day or two, and when I did, two thoughts immediately came to mind:

  1. My students are going to love this!
  2. This Matt de la Peña dude is a genius. What else has he written?

And so, over the next few months, I flew through de la Peña’s five other Young Adult novels, starting with We Were Here, which chronicled the heartbreaking journey of Miguel, Rondell, and Mong, three teenagers who are proof that we should never judge a book by its cover.

From there, I read The Living and The Hunted, which were a combination of thriller, mystery, sci-fi, and survival. While the plot seemed a bit far-fetched, I still found myself cheering wholeheartedly for Shy, the lovable protagonist, and staying up late to see how the story would end.

Next up was Mexican Whiteboy, which was a home run. Right off the bat, I connected with Danny, a teenage baseball player in search of his voice and identity. There’s no question that de la Pena hit it out of the park with this one (okay, that was my last bad baseball idiom, I promise).

This week, I finished the complex and powerful I Will Save You. While the novel took a bit longer to get into, the second half, and particularly the surprise ending, left me speechless.

As I tweeted the other day, attempting to rank de la Peña’s six books is like trying to rank ice cream flavors. They’re all amazing. Still, I wanted to give it a shot.

Before I could do that, however, I needed to come up with some sort of rating system beyond the traditional 1 to 5 stars. (If I used that scale, they would all receive 5s). After careful thought and deliberation, here’s what I came up with:

Mr. Amato’s super-scientific 30-point scale for rating books

  • Was the book so captivating that I couldn’t put it down? That’s the “I couldn’t eat, sleep, or check my phone until I finished it” factor (1-10 pts).
  • How badly was I rooting for the main character to succeed? That’s the “I wish the protagonist was real, so we could be friends and hang out all the time” factor (1-10 pts).
  • In one year, or ten years from now, will I still remember this book? That’s the “this book changed my life” factor (1-10 pts).

With those three questions in mind, here is how I ranked de la Peña’s six YA novels:

1.  Ball Don’t Lie

Ball Don't Lie.png

“I couldn’t eat, sleep, or check my phone until I finished it” factor: 10

“I wish the protagonist was real, so we could be friends and hang out all the time” factor: 9.5

“This book changed my life” factor: 9

TOTAL POINTS: 28.5

RATIONALE: Maybe it’s because I read this one first, or maybe it’s because Sticky is such a unique character that we don’t find often enough in literature, but either way, Ball Don’t Lie is well-deserving of the top spot in these rankings. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it.

2. We Were Here

We Were Here.png

“I couldn’t eat, sleep, or check my phone until I finished it” factor: 9

“I wish the protagonist was real, so we could be friends and hang out all the time” factor: 10

“This book changed my life” factor: 9

TOTAL POINTS: 28

RATIONALE: I asked one of my students, Chris, to write this review since he recently read We Were Here and here’s what he had to say: “My mom had to bring dinner to my room because I wanted to keep reading it. It was definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read.”

3. Mexican Whiteboy

Mexican Whiteboy

“I couldn’t eat, sleep, or check my phone until I finished it” factor: 8.5

“I wish the protagonist was real, so we could be friends and hang out all the time” factor: 9.5

“This book changed my life” factor: 8.5

RATIONALE: Don’t let the title fool you: readers from any background will love this book. I just wish I could have played baseball with Danny and Uno growing up.

TOTAL POINTS: 26

4. The Hunted

The Hunted.png

“I couldn’t eat, sleep, or check my phone until I finished it” factor: 9

“I wish the protagonist was real, so we could be friends and hang out all the time” factor: 9

“This book changed my life” factor: 7

TOTAL POINTS: 25

RATIONALE: I don’t usually like sequels as much as the originals, but The Hunted was like a fast-paced action movie that I couldn’t put down.

5. The Living

The Living.png

“I couldn’t eat, sleep, or check my phone until I finished it” factor: 8

“I wish the protagonist was real, so we could be friends and hang out all the time” factor: 9

“This book changed my life” factor: 7

TOTAL POINTS: 24

RATIONALE: Not what I expected after reading de la Pena’s other novels, but nonetheless highly entertaining.

6. I Will Save You

I Will Save You.png

“I couldn’t eat, sleep, or check my phone until I finished it” factor: 7

“I wish the protagonist was real, so we could be friends and hang out all the time” factor: 7

“This book changed my life” factor: 8

TOTAL POINTS: 22

RATIONALE: While the ending blew me away, and I appreciated the complexity of Kidd, the main character, I had a difficult time getting into a groove with this one.

Bottom line: If you’re an English teacher looking to read or recommend novels to late middle or high school students, particularly your boys who struggle to find books that interest them, you can’t go wrong with anything by Matt de la Peña.

As de la Peña wrote in this powerful essay on the power of reading:

Today when I write my own novels, I try to craft the best possible stories, and I certainly aim to be entertaining, but I’m also conscious of the powerful function literature can serve — especially in the lives of kids growing up the way I did. My goal as a writer is to recede into the background, allowing readers to fully participate. I want them to be able to watch the characters and listen to conversations and be free to form judgments of their own. I believe it’s in this space that young readers acquire experience with complex emotions like empathy and sensitivity, which makes them more likely to be in tune with emotional nuance out in the real world.

I couldn’t agree more.

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Author: Jarred Amato

High school English teacher who is passionate about improving TN education, one book at a time.

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