Stepanek, Matthew J(oseph) T(haddeus) 1990- (Mattie J. T. Stepanek)

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STEPANEK, Matthew J(oseph) T(haddeus) 1990- (Mattie J. T. Stepanek)


Born July 17, 1990, in Washington, DC; son of Gregory and Jeni Stepanek.


Agent—c/o VSP Books, P.O. Box 17011, Alexandria, VA 22302.


Poet and illustrator.


Melinda Lawrence International Book Award for inspirational written works, Children's Hospice International, 1999; Muscular Dystrophy Association, Maryland State Goodwill Ambassador, and 2002 National Goodwill Ambassador.


Heartsongs, VSP Books/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.

Journey through Heartsongs, VSP Books/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.

Hope through Heartsongs, VSP Books/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.

(And illustrator) Celebrate through Heartsongs, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.

(And illustrator) Loving through Heartsongs, VSP Books/Hyperion (New York, NY), 2003.

Also wrote lyrics for CD-ROM Music through Heart-songs, sung by Billy Gilman.


Believing through Heartsongs and Heartsongs for All Seasons.


Matthew "Mattie" J. T. Stepanek suffers from dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a rare form of muscular dystrophy inherited from his mother that also took the lives of two brothers and a sister—all of whom died before they were four years old. His mother, who has the adult form of the disease, teaches him at home, and he was studying at a high-school level when he was eleven. Stepanek breathes with a tracheotomy tube and a ventilator that is attached to his wheelchair, and his prognosis is uncertain. What is certain is the impact he has made with his books of poetry.

Stepanek started writing at the age of three, after the death of his brother Jamie. At that time, he had three wishes—to meet his hero Jimmy Carter, to publish his poetry, and to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He not only met Carter, but the former president wrote the foreword for his second collection, Journey through Heartsongs.

When he was in the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., Stepanek met volunteer Cheryl Barnes, who, with her husband, had begun VSP Books, a small press in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1992. Stepanek's second wish was granted through Barnes, who printed 200 copies of his first collection, Heartsongs, which consists of twenty-eight pages written when Stepanek was between three and six years old. In less than one hour, all of the copies were bought by friends, family, and supporters at a book party in the hospital. After a profile of Stepanek appeared in the Washington Post and Oprah Winfrey learned of his wish to meet her, sales of his books exceeded all expectations. Winfrey dedicated an entire show to Stepanek after the publication of his second book, Journey through Heartsongs, which contains poems Stepanek wrote from ages six through ten. Winfrey said, "If ever I had a book to recommend, it's Mattie's. If ever you were going to buy a book, I recommend it; this is the one, my friends." Stepanek has also been interviewed by Good Morning America and National Public Radio.

Publishers Weekly writer Charlotte Abbott quoted Stepanek's publisher, who commented that "people have been buying four and five copies of his book at signings, saying, 'this is my Christmas gift this year.' …It has to do with September 11. People are saying, 'if this child can have this type of spirit in the position he's in, we can get through this.'" A People contributor called Stepanek's poems "plaintive reflections on spirituality and mortality."

Sarah Baxter also referenced the September 11, 2001, attack on America in a London Sunday Times article, saying that, since then, "poetry has been a popular source of solace for Americans.… Stepanek's touching verse, with its optimistic self-help message, has captured the mood of the moment. He describes his life's philosophy as 'to play after every storm.'" Publisher Barnes was so swamped with orders for Stepanek's books that she had her printer ship them directly from the plant. In less than a year the first two volumes sold half a million copies and shot to the top of the bestseller lists. In December 2001, Barnes partnered with Hyperion in order to meet the demand.

Interviewing Stepanek for U.S. News & World Report, Holly J. Morris asked him his meaning of "heartsong," which is the title of his first collection and is contained in the titles of his others. He responded, "What God gives us as a purpose—we could some of us turn out to be president of an organization, some of us feel our purpose is to be a waitress—but no matter, we all have our heartsong, and what we choose to do with it." Teen People's Andrea Sachs noted that "Mattie's health problems have given him a unique appreciation for life—and death—which is why he writes about angels and God and is a fierce champion of world peace." Kathryn Hoffman wrote in Time for Kids that "although much of what he writes about is sad, Mattie's message is one of hope."



New York Times, November 29, 2001, Martin Arnold, "Pluck and Publicity Elevate a Young Poet," p. E1; December 10, 2001, David D. Kirkpatrick, "Hyperion Signs a Best-Selling, if Young, Poet," p. C9.

O, November, 2002, Oprah Winfrey, interview with Stepanek, p. 188.

People, January 14, 2002, "Words of Courage: Mattie Stepanek, Eleven, Turns a Tragic Illness into Poetry—and Two Bestsellers," p. 105.

Publishers Weekly, November 19, 2001, Charlotte Abbott, "Three Wishes Make a Bestseller: With Two Books on the Times List, an Eleven-Year-Old Poet Puts VSP Books on the Map," p. 28; January 28, 2002, "Handsprings for Heartsongs, " p. 141.

School Library Journal, August, 2002, Karen Sokol, review of Hope through Heartsongs, p. 224.

Sunday Times (London, England), January 27, 2002, Sarah Baxter, "America Takes Poems of Tragic Child to Its Heart," p. 24.

Teen People, May 1, 2002, Andrea Sachs, "Hot Property: Mattie Stepanek's Deadly Illness Hasn't Stopped Him from Writing Best-selling Poetry Books," p. 132.

Time for Kids, January 25, 2002, Kathryn Hoffman, "Poems from the Heart: A Young Writer Offers Words of Hope," p. 7.

U.S. News & World Report, November 26, 2001, Holly J. Morris, "Remembering to Play after the Storm" (interview), p. 8.*


Mattie J.T. Stepanek Home Page, (January, 2004).