In May, Jessica reviewed Meg Medina’s most recent novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Recently, I was able to interview Meg via Skype to discuss that book and more. I’m thankful that she graciously shared a bit of her writing life with us.
What brought you to writing for young people?
I have written for adults and I don’t rule it out completely that I will someday find a story that is more suited to adults, but in one way or another my life has pointed me in the direction of children. I’ve spent a lot of time working with young people of all ages as a teacher, mother and volunteer. There is also something really wonderful about writing for young people. I consider it an honor. You’re learning about everything including yourself at that age and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to stay connected to that piece of yourself. I sort of picture myself in a cave with a lantern and I’m walking through and I just hold it up. I can’t solve anybody’s issues. I can’t make dark things go away, but I can shine a light and I can certainly help someone feel less isolated by the issues of growing up – the problems of growing up.
Also, when I write for young children, when I do a picture book — that is just joyous. Because it’s poetry really — a big story in a small number of words. It’s image. It’s emotion. And it’s the joyous part of being young that I like to capture.
I read an interview you did with School Library Journal and you mentioned that Yaqui Delgado was based on something in your past. Could you share a little about that?
I went to a middle school in New York and one morning a girl in a rabbit fur coat approached me and said someone told her they were going to kick my ass. I said, “Who’s that?” I had no idea. It was this very fierce girl — a Latin girl like me and not like me. What followed was two of the longest years of my life because I was really afraid to go to school. Afraid to go the bathroom. Afraid to be in the hall and run into one of her cronies or her. She never did savage me the way it happens in the novel for Piddy, but that feeling of dread and the way fear and being picked on can really destroy your sense of self, that is very true. And that is what happened to me. I started to make really terrible choices. I started to harden myself, to speak coarsely, to hang out with extremely questionable people, to do really unsafe things. In retrospect, they were really not healthy things for any young woman to be doing. It took years for me to feel better. It just seeped throughout all of middle school into high school. When we are in high school there’s a lot to be angry about. This just compounded it and it took a long time to feel better.
Are you part of a writing group?
Usually I write by myself and I work with my editor, Kate Fletcher pretty closely. I will write something and I have one or two trusted readers who are friends and authors. They give me their feedback, but really, once you have a close relationship with an editor at whatever your publishing house you land, in some ways it’s an audience of one. It’s a conversation between you and your editor of this work. The hard thing about a writing group sometimes is that it’s many voices & many opinions and not all equally great. That’s just the way it is. So I’m careful about that. It’s very easy to be blown off course.
Looking at your books, it seems like family is pretty important to you. I was just curious if any of your family members are kind of peeking out from some of your books.
They’re bleeding all over the pages. It’s bad for them really. Their lives and identities have been stolen. I take pieces of family of friends etc. I shamelessly melt them down to my purposes. I combine them with others and I create what I want. That’s how I really operate.
The most visible is Tia Isa Wants a Car, which is a picture book. There is a Tia Isa. She did buy the first family car. She lives with me. She lives downstairs. She, as in the book, she wanted to buy the car and no one in the family thought that she should because she was very nervous not necessarily a quick learner and we were all sure we were gonna die in the car. But she got secret lessons with a bilingual driving instructor and came home one day with this big Buick Wildcat and that car sort of liberated us. We could go anywhere we wanted to go after that. I had no notion I would write about Tia Isa, but when I sat down to write, the line that came to me was “Tia Isa wants a car” and it became a story of a little girl and her aunt conspiring to buy the family car. It’s about the whole notion of the person least likely, the least one among us, told she can’t do something, who does it anyway. That was a good lesson in life that my aunt provided for me and so it was wonderful to be able to honor her with that book. Now, of course, she’s very bossy, like she’ll look at the illustrations and she’ll say things like, “They didn’t get my hair right.”
There have been a lot of articles recently (CBC Diversity, Lee & Low, Betsy Bird) about the state of multicultural publishing. Do you have ideas or suggestions about how teachers, librarians, and/or bloggers can help change this?
I think it’s important, that the books offer the world of the multicultural child, showing the idiosyncracies of their culture as just a natural fact of life as the book examines the normal problems of growing up. It’s really just another lens, but at its core it still has to be a good story about the normal problems of growing up. Wanting friends, difficulty with friends, facing adult problems for the first time, falling in love, distancing from your family you know, all of those tried and true universal things, but superimposed with the lens of a Latino family or an Asian family or any culture but really staying true to what it is to be a child at whatever age teenage, preschool etc. That’s my core belief.
I think it’s important for schools and community libraries and so on to move beyond the notion of using books during Spanish Heritage Month, Cinco de Mayo or El Dia de los Niños. That’s a great time to use papel picado and piñatas, but we’re beyond this. It needs to be literature that is part of literature all the way around. When you are talking about a unit like girls on adventures, you might pick up my book Milagros or Maragarita Engle’s book Hurricane Dancers.
I also like to see partnerships with Latino authors and illustrators. One of the joys of coming to the table now, is there are so many wonderful Latino authors and illustrators making really compelling work and they are very community oriented and interested in youth, in creating a sense of pride, creating habits of reading and increasing literacy in the families and in the communities. They’re willing to come to schools, to skype, to do community shows of illustrations. I have found them to be a wonderful family of people. I would encourage librarians to reach out to Latino authors and illustrators in whatever way you can to come to your school – to visit your school to be part of the conversation. It’s a great idea. Our children need to see these examples of men and women being successful in many fields including the fields of art and literature. I wish sometimes that we would take a bigger view of what we bring to our children in what we call education. Part of education of course, is helping kids to see the possibilities for themselves.
Can you explain your Girls of Summer Program?
My friend Gigi Amateau is a Candlewick author too. Often we have strong girls in our books. Our daughters were getting ready to graduate and we started talking about how books helped us raise them and helped us as mothers and helped them as girls. So just very casually we wondered if we could come up with 18 books that we think are really amazing books for strong girls – and we could. We started talking about them passionately and then we decided to make it a blog. One thing led to another and we’re now in the third year of Girls of Summer. It’s basically this blog where every year we pick 18 of our favorite books for strong girls. We do it for picture books all the way to YA and every Friday we have one of the authors come and do a Q & A with us.
The Richmond Public library has these wonderful librarians. They promote the list and we have our Girls of Summer live launch party there. We bring two of the authors from the list to do a live Q & A. We give the whole list to two lucky winners, an elementary winner and a middle/high school winner. We also have other goofy give-aways like flip-flops and sunscreen — very necessary. The library funded free ice-cream for all of the girls. We had between 180 and 195 people. Mothers, daughters, teachers, librarians and girls of every age and every color and every ethnicity all in celebration of books that in turn celebrate what it is to go from being a little girl to a young woman who can determine what she wants for herself. It’s a beautiful thing. I love that project. I love that it helps the city library. I love that it helps girls in the community. I love that I get to work closely with my friend Gigi. It’s all good. There’s no downside to it, except maybe the work. There’s a lot of work and a lot of reading involved, but it’s all good.
What are you doing when you aren’t writing and working on The Girls of Summer?
This morning I am doing research for a new novel set in New York City in the late 70s during the time that Son of Sam was murdering girls. Isn’t that a cheery thought? I am just pulling together information.
Meg also added that she spends a lot of time with her family.
To learn more about Meg, her books, and The Girls of Summer, please visit her website.
Photo credit Petite Shards Productions