Gary Soto was born in Fresno, California, in April 12, 1952, to working-class Mexican-American parents. At a young age, he worked in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. He was not academically motivated as a child, but became interested in poetry during his high school years.
He attended Fresno City college and California State University at Fresno while working toward an undergraduate degree, and later studied poetry at the University of California, Irvine, where he earned his MFA in 1976.
His first collection of poems, The Elements of San Joaquin, won the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum in 1976 and was published in 1977. The New York Times Book Review honored the book by reprinting six of the poems. His second book of poems, The Tale of Sunlight (1978), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he has published numerous books of poetry, including A Simple Plan (Chronicle Books, 2007); One Kind of Faith (2003); and Junior College (1997).
Soto's New and Selected Poems (1995) was a National Book Award finalist. Other early titles include Canto Familiar/Familiar Song (1994); Neighborhood Odes (1992); Home Course in Religion (1991); Who Will Know Us? (1990); Black Hair (1985); Where Sparrows Work Hard (1981); and The Tale of Sunlight (1978).
About his work, the writer Joyce Carol Oates has said, "Gary Soto's poems are fast, funny, heartening, and achingly believable, like Polaroid love letters, or snatches of music heard out of a passing car; patches of beauty like patches of sunlight; the very pulse of a life."
He has also written three novels, Amnesia in a Republican County, (University of New Mexico, 2003); Poetry Lover (2001) and Nickel and Dime (2000); a memoir Living Up the Street (1985), for which he received the Before Columbus 1985 American Book Award; numerous young adult and children's books; and edited three anthologies: Pieces of Heart (1993), California Childhood (1988), and Entrance: Four Latino Poets (1976).
His honors include the Andrew Carnegie Medal, the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum, The Nation/"Discovery" Prize, and the Bess Hokin Prize and the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine. He has also received fellowships from the California Arts Council, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
He lives in northern California.