The Living by Matt de la Pena tackles many issues that teens deal with on a day-to-day basis. His characters are usually working class and are of mixed race. They deal with racism and unfair societal disadvantages that they must rise above. The books are contemporary and are for the multicultural teens that don’t see many books that are written for them specifically.
Matt de la Pena tackles these same issues in a completely new way. The main character in The Living is Shy. He’s working on a cruise ship for the summer to make some money. His family is struggling to make ends meet in Otay Mesa, a small neighborhood outside of San Diego. His grandmother recently died of a new disease that proves fatal and is sweeping through the poorer parts of California. Shy connects with another employee, Carmen, on the ship because of his grandmother’s death. He feels she’s the only one he can truly connect with because her father died of the same disease. Shy has feelings for her but she’s engaged to another guy. He also has some people investigating and interrogating because he was a witness to some rich guy’s suicide. The company the man worked for is very interested in what this man’s last words were to Shy. Shy can’t even imagine why. But these problems all seem so small and unimportant when the cruise ship receives word that most of California has been devastated by a disastrous earthquake. People are in shock that many of their loved ones are most likely dead. Then a tsunami bigger than any in recorded history sinks the ship. After a heart pumping series of events, Shy finds himself on a lifeboat with a teenage girl named Addie.
Shy has met Addie before and they did not get along. She’s a rich girl who was on a cruise with her rich father and girl friend. Now she’s no better off than Shy. Due to their circumstances the previous class lines are gone and now they both just need to survive. They are trying to get to the Hidden Island that her father works on as it is the nearest haven they can think of and they get to know each other in the process.
I really liked how Matt was able to combine so many different genres into one book. He has an adventure, contemporary fiction, disaster, romance, and coming of age. I like that it was so easy to get inside Shy’s head even though it was written in the third person. There were plenty of times when I was surprised to hear “Shy” instead of “I” or “me”. The narration flowed so well that I completely forgot that it wasn’t Shy who was actually talking. This is definitely a novel that will entertain all readers while connecting with the multicultural teens in a special way.
On a side note, there was one thing that did irritate me with The Living. It has a love triangle like so many teen novels today. I wonder if this is because Matt isn’t used to writing romance into his fiction and he’s just taking a cue from many of the popular teen novels of today, Hunger Games just for an example, or if this will come into play later in the series and couldn’t be avoided. Either way, I did roll my eyes a little when I realized Shy was going to be torn between Carmen and Addie. However, I really liked how Matt could portray a teenage male protagonist so realistically. Shy has the normal hormonal lusty feelings of a teenage boy but he also shows the depth of emotions and intelligence that most boys also have. He doesn’t always act like a sex crazed boy that we’re used to seeing. Shy has these feelings but he doesn’t always act on them. Matt de la Pena did a great job in not writing a stereotypical teenage boy.
Follow what he’s doing on Matt de la Pena’s website.
Read/listen to an interview with Matt de la Pena on NPR’s website.
For a list of multicultural books written for kids and teens compiled by experts in the field click here.