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Authors' Corner

Authors’ Corner: Matt Mendez

By Rebecca Ballenger, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

man in stylized hoodie

Photo by Chris Summitt

Matt Mendez is the author of Barely Missing Everything and the short story collection, Twitching Heart. The New York Times says Matt “has an uncanny ability to capture the aimless bluster of young boys posturing at confidence.” His new novel, The Broke Hearts, also captures this bluster. In this profile, Matt opens up about this new novel, his writing process and meaningful reader interactions.

The Broke Hearts
The Broke Hearts is more of a companion book than a sequel and revisits characters from Barely Missing Everything. Told in alternating perspectives and formats that encompass the experiences of JD, Danny and Sarge, Matt explores shared grief and moments of individual heartbreak in this book.

Matt wrote The Broke Hearts because he felt as though Danny had more of a story to tell and that motivated him to revisit these characters and places. “The plan was to write a straightforward, standalone novel with Danny as the main character, him going off to college and me exploring the relationship between him and the Sarge,” says Matt who aimed to write about a book about fathers and sons.

A coyote creeps down the page, his tail poking out through the title“But as I started to write,” Matt continues, “JD’s presence in the story began to grow and grow until I had to make him a POV character too. Before I knew it, I was writing a different book than I had originally planned, but it was still centered around that central relationship, between boys and their fathers. Only now it is much more complicated, and I think better.”

Although JD and Danny are teens, the book skews toward New Adult as they’ve graduated high school with JD signing up for the Air Force and Danny moving on to college. Even so, it appeals to the Young Adult reader. Matt says YA readers need books that reflect their current lives and what their near future could look like.

“JD and Danny are living right where YA readers are about to be, in that big transition from high school and into the first steps of adulthood,” Matt points out.

The Broke Hearts invites readers to ask important questions as they go on this journey with JD and Danny. Specifically, what happens if all your effort is put into achieving one goal such as getting to college but don’t like that future once you get there? How do you adjust your goals and re-imagine your future?

Writing to Reveal Character
Matt’s books have moments of levity and dry humor, while the stories have heavy themes of family hardship and over-policing of targeted neighborhoods. However, he is more interested in people: how they move in the world, make choices, think and observe.

He says, “Most of my work takes place in the contemporary world, but I’m less concerned about exploring an issue or theme than I am about revealing character. I’m way more interested people.”

And amidst the darker settings, Matt’s characters are funny. “I like to write jokes and create characters who use humor to deal with hard situations because that’s just a very human thing to do.”

The Broke Hearts and Barely Missing Everything take place in cities Matt calls or has called home (primarily El Paso, but Tucson also gets a shout out). Matt makes the setting seem more integral to the storytelling and elevates place to the same status as the characters.

“The Southwest occupies such a large space in my imagination. The mountains, the cactus, the rock. The wide-open sky. The desert environment can seem harsh, but it also beautiful and giving. It’s the only place I can think of setting my stories, where my characters will feel at home.” He adds, “Where I feel at home.”

Matt earned his MFA from the University of Arizona and often discusses the people who inspired his writing. He has also taught creative writing. That begs the question, what would he say to a JD, Danny, Roxanne or even a Fabi who was considering an attempt at a novel?

“Both JD and Danny are artists, so I think writing a novel might seem more natural for them. They are already thinking about story and images and wanting to make meaning out of things they are observing in the world around them,” he says.

“Roxanne and Fabi may not see themselves as artists or even creative, but that may actually be an advantage when it comes to writing. I’ve been in aircraft maintenance most of my life, so I have a very different way of approaching writing than a lot of writers.”

Teachers and Readers
In a 2019 Pine Reads Review podcast episode with the Worlds of Words Teen Reading Ambassadors (episode no longer available online), Matt joined the show to discuss Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams. In that podcast, Matt shared his admiration for Rivera, who makes a cameo in this book. Apparently, Rivera is not the only author cameo.

“All of the adult characters in The Broke Hearts are named after writers that are important to me in way or another. It was my way of keeping their work in mind while writing and also of honoring them,” says Matt. Finding these Easter eggs adds playfulness to the readers’ experience of the story.

Matt Mendez signs copies of Barely Missing Everything at a table surrounded by teen readersMatt clearly honors those who have influenced his work. “Writers like Meg Files and Aurelie Sheehan, who were my first writing teachers, helped me incorporate so much of my life outside of writing into my how I approach the craft of it,” Matt says.

As Matt acknowledges his teachers, he also appreciates readers – both at book events and in the classroom. He especially enjoys interaction as part of these experiences. Matt appreciates being in an unscripted conversation with a book-talk host followed by an audience question and answer in with both parts of the program go in unexpected directions.

The same is true for classroom visits. “Being in conversation with a classroom is much more fun than talking at students,” he says. “I like to have small workshops, where students can begin a story of their own and the visit not just be about a writer coming to visit but also about them seeing themselves as writers.”

Matt sees the reader as the star of book events and classroom visits. “I’m way less interesting or important than books,” he says. “Readers want writers to know how books and stories have affected them and their lives.” He acknowledges the gift of readers’ time spent between the covers of a book. “The least I can do is listen to them and repay that time.”

Like many of his characters (and readers), Matt grew up in El Paso, Texas and continues to live in the Southwest, now in Tucson, Arizona. Readers interested in a teen’s take on The Broke Hearts should listen to Season 2, Episode 1 of WOW Reads, a podcast of Worlds of Words that features younger readers. In this episode, the Worlds of Words Teen Reading Ambassadors discuss the experience of meeting Matt at the book launch for The Broke Hearts.

Authors’ Corner is a periodic profile featured on our blog where authors discuss their writing process and the importance of school visits. Worlds of Words frequently hosts these authors for events in the collection. To find out when we are hosting an author, check out our events page. Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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Crowdfund Update: With Gratitude

By Rebecca Ballenger, Associate Director, Worlds of Words Center

We keep all the thank you letters we receive from our K-12 visitors. They often share their favorite part of their Worlds of Words Center field trip in these letters. We love these notes! It’s fun to read their thoughts around the exhibits they experience. They almost always mention books, and sometimes we get the best portraits of our staff. The gratitude expressed in these letters has a huge impact on our team.

Handwritten thank you letter Continue reading

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Worlds of Words Center Launches First Crowdfund Effort to Bring Global Stories to Life

By Rebecca Ballenger, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

The Worlds of Words Center of Global Literacies and Literatures in the University of Arizona College of Education announces the launch of its first ever crowdfunding campaign on October 2. The campaign aims to raise $10,000 to fund a year of exhibits that will spark the imaginations of visitors to the center.

Young teens reading and discussing the books and posters on display.

Students from Paulo Freire Freedom School explore the exhibit, Around the World in 70 Maps.

“We are excited to launch our first crowdfunding campaign,” says UArizona Regents Professor and director of the WOW Center, Kathy Short. “This is a great opportunity to support our mission of sharing global stories. With help from the community, we can continue to provide enriching exhibits that inspire people of all ages.” Continue reading

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Arizona Is a Story

By Rebecca Ballenger, Associate Director, Worlds of Words Center

The rich and diverse stories of Arizona are on display in an original new exhibit of art, maps and books that showcase the history and perspectives of the state, highlighting this beautiful and complex place. For a limited time, the public can visit “Arizona Is a Story” at the Worlds of Words Center of Global Literacies and Literatures (WOW Center) in the UArizona College of Education.

Two people compare a book illustration to the final printed book

Rylan Pugliese (UArizona East Asian Studies graduate student) confers with Aika Adamson (WOW Staff) about the book, Confetti Poems.

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WOW Recommends: Book of the Month

WOW Recommends: Be a Good Ancestor

Two figures look over a forrested valleyIn Be a Good Ancestor, Canadian authors Leona Prince and Gabrielle Prince, issue this simple, four-word request to readers as an inspiring call to action. The authors, who are sisters, have written a poignant picturebook with themes of interconnectedness and stewardship that will resonate with readers of all ages. The repetition of the phrase, “Be a good Ancestor,” in each stanza invites readers to contemplate their roles as ancestors of future generations. Readers will hopefully recognize that the actions (or inactions) they take today have consequences that will last for decades to come. Each double-page spread features a unique call focused on the environment and on living beings, both human and non-human:

Be a good Ancestor with water
Be a good Ancestor with the land
Be a good Ancestor with living things that swim

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WOW Recommends: Book of the Month

WOW Recommends: Wildoak

A sihlouette of a girl is filled in with starry night sky. A snow leopard fills the space of her shoulders.It’s London, 1963 and Maggie Stephens stutters. Because she stutters so badly, Maggie rarely speaks and finds all kinds of ways not to have to speak or read in school. Interestingly, Maggie does not stutter when she speaks to animals. Her parents, concerned (and perhaps a bit embarrassed) about her behavior, wonder if she needs to be treated at Granville, a school for children who don’t seem to fit in to the typical school. Granville is terrifying to Maggie who has heard rumors about how children are beaten if they cry. Looking for a way out of the Granville plan, Maggie agrees to an alternative plan to spend time with her grandfather in Wildoak Forest.

Meanwhile, Rumpus, a snowy leopard for sale at Harrod’s Department Store, is purchased as a birthday present for a woman who seems to have everything. Rumpus is separated from his littermate sister Rosie and is expected to behave like a domesticated cat rather than the wild cat he is. Rumpus is shortly abandoned in none other than the Wildoak Forest, where he and Maggie encounter one another.

The forest is a magical place, and as Maggie’s grandfather notes, it has “Real magic, if you know what I mean.” Her mother thought the air in the forest might be beneficial for Maggie, and in turn, Maggie thinks that maybe, just maybe it would make a difference and her stutter would go away.

But others soon find out about a snowy leopard in Wildoak and his life becomes endangered. Maggie realizes that like herself, time may be running out for Rumpus. Additionally, time may be running out for the forest as well. Copper has been found under the forest and the owner of the land is thinking of mining it. While copper can make the owner rich, mining it is dangerous for the land and those who much remove the ore from the ground.

Bringing together three sentient lives in a race against time, C.C. Harrington’s Wildoak is a story of the interconnectedness of humans, nonhuman animals and the environment, and how we are all dependent upon one another. Told in Maggie’s and Rumpus’ alternating voices, readers are invited into a timeless story of wonder and compassion with an inter-generational relationship that is both beautiful and lovingly respectful. With drawings by Diana Sudyka, the story would make a marvelous read aloud for elementary and middle school students or as a companion piece to Sam Thompson’s Wolfstongue, which also chronicles the interdependence of a young boy who stutters and nonhuman animals. -Recommended by Holly Johnson, Emeritus Professor, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

Title: Wildoak
Author: C.C. Harrington
Illustrator: Diana Sudyka
ISBN: 9781338803860
Publisher: Scholastic Press
PubDate: September 20, 2022

Each month a committee of Worlds of Words advisors recommends a book published within the last year. Our hope is to spark conversations on our website and on social media about the book that expand global understandings and perceptions. Please join us by leaving a comment. You can also share your thoughts with us by using the hashtag #WOWRecommends on social media. Check out our alphabetical listing of all the books featured in WOW Recommends.

WOW Recommends: Book of the Month

WOW Recommends: The Mystery of the Monarchs

Characters of all ages observe monarch butterflies in an open greenspaceThe Mystery of the Monarchs: How Kids, Teachers, and Butterfly Fans Helped Fred and Norah Urquhart Track the Great Monarch Migration by Barb Rosenstock and Erika Meza (illustrator) is a fascinating and absorbing account of how the mystery of where millions of monarch butterflies migrate over the winter was solved by Fred Urquhart, a Canadian professor of zoology and hundreds of citizens from three different countries. Fred, who lived in Toronto was a “bug man,” from the time he was eight. One of the bugs that fascinated him was the monarch butterfly. He knew a lot about the monarchs including that “during the fall, the monarchs disappeared.” Fred even wrote to a famous professor. “He asked: ‘Where do the monarchs go? He got a surprise answer: No one knew…. It was a mystery that Fred wanted to solve….” For ten years as he worked as a scientist he tried different methods of tagging the butterflies, but never heard back from anyone who found the tagged insects. Continue reading