An Américas Award Interview: Meg Medina

Meg-Medina.pngMeg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction. Her work examines how cultures intersect, as seen through the eyes of young people. She brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls.

Among the many praises her work elicits, the Américas Award has acknowledged her exceptional contributions to Latin American and Latino literature for children and youth. Titles that have appeared on the Commended Lists for the Américas Award include Burn Baby Burn (2017) and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (2014).

Here, the author converses with Hania Mariën of the Vamos a Leer blog as she poses questions about Medina’s work, her inspirations, and the importance of bringing Latinx literature into the classroom. For more information, including publications and supporting educational resources, visit https://megmedina.com/

June, 2017

HANIA MARIËN: According to your website, a lot of your work focuses on supporting girls, reaching out to Latino youth, and fostering literacy. Can you talk a bit about how and why you are interested in these topics and how your work as an author and educator supports these intersecting efforts?

MEG MEDINA: That’s a big question. Like everyone else, I’m a composite of interests and influences. I was raised in a house led mostly by women, so there was a distinctly female lens on things. My mother and aunts had been teachers in Cuba, so there was always an interest in literacy and learning, too – not to mention an immersion in Cuban culture and customs.

As for feminism, I’d say that my interest sprang from being a child who came of age in the mid 1970s, which was a golden age of feminism in New York. This was the time of Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and the first Women’s International Congress.

I’ve stayed interested in these topics because they shaped me. I occupy this world as a female and a Latina – it’s the only set of eyes I have. What I’ve chosen to do with that perspective is to turn it into an art form and to use that art form not only to understand myself better, but also to help build pride, connection, and resilience in young readers.

HANIA MARIËN: Can you elaborate on your process of trying to write for and about Latinos?  In an interview with Publishers’ Weekly, for instance, you acknowledged the diversity of Latino and Latin American cultures and the difficulty of trying to write about that breadth of perspectives.

MEG MEDINA: I think the umbrella term “Latino” is so very broad. It encompasses many countries, races, economic realities, and experiences. But which stories get told and by whom? What gets to be called authentic representation?

As an author, what I try to bring to my work is an honest look at the bicultural Cuban American experience, as I lived it. Some of the characters and situations in my novels transfer easily to other immigrant groups, particularly from Latin America, and I’m glad for that. These include the struggle to separate from the parents’ culture; language issues; trying to get a footing in a new country; and facing down overt and veiled racism.

But my work is not nearly enough to tell the whole story of Latinos. For that you need many more perspectives. My dream is to see many more authors add their stories to what is available for children, so that we can start to see the true tapestry.

HANIA MARIËN: Many of your books feature strong women protagonists. Can you speak about your definition of feminism and how feminism informs your writing and outreach efforts?

MEG MEDINA: I am proudly a feminist, and I define that as a celebration of women who are strong, independent, and equally valued in their homes and the larger society. I write books that celebrate girls, particularly Latinas, as they work on their resilience and their own voice. To that end, I reject stereotypes of Latinas which are, sadly, everywhere in books and other media. Girls clad in tight, cheetah print clothes. Girls who are written as hot-tempered and overly sexualized, as gang members, as drop outs, as victims. The list goes on. I write to expand the narrative to include the real women I knew and to honor the young women in classrooms that I meet every day.  They’re smart. They have agency. And they deserve nuanced and respectful representations of who they are.

HANIA MARIËN: You’ve written that you are an “author of libros for kids of all ages.” This calls to mind your fluid ability to move between Spanish and English.  Can you speak about being bilingual and what bilingualism has meant to you personally and professionally?

MEG MEDINA: I think and speak in two languages, and the line between the two is anything but static. The reality of Latino families is that language is fluid. For example, perhaps grandparents speak only Spanish, parents speak both – to varying degrees – and maybe the child can speak Spanish and English, but not read or write both. Or perhaps the child doesn’t speak Spanish at all. Or maybe Spanish isn’t the home language. The possibilities are endless. Families still communicate, though. So, I like to capture the mixture of Spanish and English that forms the practical way that we speak to each other in our homes. I love, too, to see the phrases that are borrowed from each language and how they impact each other. Some people complain that the use of Spanglish is distracting, but to whom, exactly? Not to me. So, I’m unapologetic. Language is always evolving and we have to adapt. What was a selfie 20 years ago? What was fake news before last year? These are new expressions that reflect what’s happening. Language expands to make room for them. It works the same with Spanglish phrases.

HANIA MARIËN: It sounds like it’s not uncommon for you to speak directly with the students who are reading your books. What are some of the lessons or insights you’ve learned from speaking with them? Have they changed the way you write or informed your process in any way?

MEG MEDINA: Meeting students in person is always a highlight, and it’s always a confirmation of what I know to be true: That growing up is hard, and that young people want to have a voice in what is happening around them. Classrooms are far more diverse than they were when I was younger, so I like to recreate worlds that reflect the true friendships, complex families, and strains that exist for them now.

I like to see my work connect with all kids, but it’s true that it’s especially satisfying when I see Latino kids feel proud or simply seen for the first time in a classroom where my books are being read. In those scenarios, they become the classroom experts and can translate phrases or explain why something is happening, or add in a meaningful way to the discussion about things that their classmates might be unfamiliar with. It elevates kids to a place of power over their own knowledge and story.

HANIA MARIËN: In an interview with the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, you say that the stories of your heritage gave you a “sense of place in history and in my family, a sense of what I came from, and a sense of my family’s strength.”  Do you have any advice for educators who want to help students understand their own histories?  And how reading diverse literature might help them learn and understand their own stories better?

MEG MEDINA: I think your school and classroom library should be as wide ranging as possible and should represent as many world views as possible. It’s our strongest path to creating young people who are empathetic and thoughtful about others. Comb the lists of winners of the Pura Belpré, the Tomás Rivera Award, the Américas Award for Literature, the Coretta Scott King, the Asian Pacific Writers, American Indian Youth Literature awards.  You can find links to all of them on the ALA home page, but this is where you’ll find the very best examples of literature that speaks to a wide range of points of view.

My only caution is remembering not to rely solely on making a single child the ambassador for a whole culture. What you’re after is a classroom full of children that are opening the curiosity and understanding of other people.

HANIA MARIËN: You’ve long been involved in the We Need Diverse Books movement and organization. Can you talk a bit about the meaning of the phrase, “diverse books,” and their importance in the classroom?

MEG MEDINA: Some people use the term diverse to mean books featuring people from a range of races, but I use the term to mean a full scope of experiences beyond simply race and culture to include LGBTQ, disabilities, and more – all the experiences that you are very likely to find at some point in a classroom today.

It’s important to include books that speak the experience of these various communities – especially if they are written by authors who have lived those experiences. Without space on your shelves for such books, we create the impression that only some people matter or that only some experiences are worthy of consideration. The fact is that children are not going to school in a bubble, and they won’t become adults who live in a bubble either. They will work, live, and play with a full range of human beings. Books give readers important information and understanding, even if it is fictionalized.

HANIA MARIËN: In regards to the same, do you think the recent push for diverse books has a risk of passing away as some trends do? Are there concrete ways that we (as readers, writers, educators, students, and more) can help make the commitment a long-standing one among publishers?

MEG MEDINA: I doubt it will pass. A trend is fleeting. But a societal shift in population is another thing entirely. And that’s what the statistics tell us that we have in the US.

So, as educators, what are we planning to tell the ever-increasing number of so-called minority students?  That there are no books that represent them? Are we going to cling to collections and reading lists that reflect an earlier time or one that reflects the world we actually live in?

As educators, as parents, as community leaders, we need to purchase a wide range of books, invite a representative range of authors to our schools, encourage eclectic reading tastes in young people so that they can move through their world prepared.

HANIA MARIËN: Thinking about what lies ahead, are there any projects you have in the works that you can tell us about?

MEG MEDINA: I have a new middle grade novel due out in the fall of 2018. It’s based on characters that I developed for a short story that I wrote for the We Need Diverse Books anthology, Flying Lessons and Other Stories. And, I’ve been keeping my eye on things as Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is developed as a TV series on HULU. The producers are the fabulous Gina Rodriguez and Eugenio Derbez – and the writer is Dailyn Rodriguez, who wrote for “Ugly Betty” and other well-known shows. I’m thrilled that it’s Latino talent all the way through.

HANIA MARIËN: In your interview with the Washington Post you mention that we need editors, marketing people, book reviewers, etc. with “wider sensibilities.” You also mention we don’t know our own “blind spots.” What role can books play in helping us – as educators and students of the world – learn about our blind spots?

MEG MEDINA: I think that reading and following critical discussions about books offer educators a chance to deepen how they select and evaluate a book for a collection. You may have loved Little House in the Big Woods as a child, but if you read it as an adult, you’ll find some troubling dialogue. The same is true for Harriet the Spy and any number of beloved classics. But it’s not just a problem of past works. Unfortunately, we still have books written today that use language, illustrations, or situations that are offensive to the groups being portrayed.

I think that supporting books that are written by #ownvoices authors is one step in the right direction.

The other step is to go beyond quick assessment of a book. We’re all busy, so it’s easy to flip through a review journal to see if a book got stars.

But these days, you need more. By following the sometimes-gut-wrenching arguments about new books, you can learn how to ask yourself harder questions about books and how not to gloss over something offensive simply because you never thought of it as problematic before. You learn to look beyond the reviewing agencies to find out if a book is raising red flags on offensive content. You learn to tune in to the people from groups whose stories have been told incorrectly or boorishly, and you develop a more respectful way to assess the quality of books representing that experience.

No one gets everything right all the time. And some disagreements will stay just that: disagreements. But the dialogue matters and the overdue shift if respect is essential.

HANIA MARIËN: Finally, as the child of immigrants yourself, are there any words of advice or inspiration you can offer to the educators out there who may have young immigrants in their classrooms? In these particularly contentious and troubling times, what might they do to better support immigrants and refugee children?

MEG MEDINA: I think we are at risk of traumatizing immigrant children right now. Imagine being thought of not as someone who adds value to a classroom, but as a drain, a criminal, a scourge.

As educators, our number one job is to create a space where children can feel safe to learn. One way to do that is to celebrate the people they are, to celebrate their families and the perspectives they bring to us. If ever there was a time for literature that focuses on the universal qualities of families and growing up, it’s now. Look at your students. Who are they? Now, go find as many books as you can that includes them in the pages.

 

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Photograph of author. Reprinted courtesy of Petite Shards Productions.

Our Next Good Read. . .The Jumbies

Join us on Monday, August 21st at Tractor Brewing (1800 4th St NW) from 5:00-7:00 pm to Vamos a Leer | The Jumbies | Tracey Baptistediscuss our next book.  We are reading The Jumbies (Grades 3-5) by Tracey Baptiste.

Here’s a sneak peek into the book: (from Goodreads)

A spine-tingling tale rooted in Caribbean folklore that will have readers holding their breath as they fly through its pages.

Corinne La Mer isn’t afraid of anything. Not scorpions, not the boys who tease her, and certainly not jumbies. They’re just tricksters parents make up to frighten their children. Then one night Corinne chases an agouti all the way into the forbidden forest. Those shining yellow eyes that followed her to the edge of the trees, they couldn’t belong to a jumbie. Or could they?

When Corinne spots a beautiful stranger speaking to the town witch at the market the next day, she knows something unexpected is about to happen. And when this same beauty, called Severine, turns up at Corinne’s house, cooking dinner for Corinne’s father, Corinne is sure that danger is in the air. She soon finds out that bewitching her father, Pierre, is only the first step in Severine’s plan to claim the entire island for the jumbies. Corinne must call on her courage and her friends and learn to use ancient magic she didn’t know she possessed to stop Severine and save her island home.

With its able and gutsy heroine, lyrical narration, and inventive twist on the classic Haitian folktale “The Magic Orange Tree,” The Jumbies will be a favorite of fans of Breadcrumbs, A Tale Dark and Grimm, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

We hope to see you there!

We’ll also be raffling off a copy of September’s featured book, Lucky Broken Girl (Grades 6 and up)Join us that evening to be entered!

 

An Américas Award Interview: Monica Brown

Buenas! As the school year winds down we are delighted to share another Américas Award interview, this time speaking with Monica Brown. Recently, her book, Lola Levine, Drama Queen, was selected as a Bluebonnet Award Finalist – and she just published the fourth book in her chapter book series, Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean. Be sure to keep an eye out this September for her new book, Frida and her Animalitos, illustrated by John Parra!

~Hania

Vamos-a-Leer-Interview-Monica-Brown.pngMonica Brown is an accomplished children’s book author whose works inspire children and young readers to think deeply, beautifully, and critically about the world around them.

Among the many praises bestowed upon her works, the Américas Award has been twice awarded to her, including for Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People in 2012 and My Name is Celia / Me llamo Celia in 2004.  The repeated accolades and starred reviews she has received all attest to her ability to create beautiful, moving books that encourage empathy and understanding among young readers. Inspired by her Peruvian-American heritage and a desire to share Latino/a stories with children, she writes, as she explains, “from a place of deep passion, job, and commitment to producing the highest possible quality of literature for students.”

Here, the author converses with Hania Mariën of the Vamos a Leer blog as she poses questions about Brown’s work, her inspirations, and the importance of bringing Latinx literature into the classroom. For more information, including publications and supporting educational resources, visit http://www.monicabrown.net.

May, 2017

HANIA MARIËN: You mention that Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match was rejected many times. Since its publication you have published several other books featuring Marisol. What do you think allowed for this eventual publishing success? Can we attribute it in part to a growing awareness of the need for more diverse characters or is there more to it?

MarisolMONICA BROWN: With Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina it took a small, multicultural children’s press based in San Francisco to take that “risk” of publishing a children’s book that talked honestly about the multiracial experience.  That press was Children’s Book Press, now an imprint of the equally visionary publishers Lee and Low.  I’ve been privileged to work with principled editors with courage and vision—trailblazers like Adriana Dominguez, Gabby Baez Ventura, and Nikki Garcia, among other amazing women.

HANIA MARIËN: You say that bilingual books offer “moments of multiple literacy.” Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by that?

MONICA BROWN: Bilingual books offer the chance for readers to see two beautiful languages side by side on the page.  In Latinx families, there are often generational differences in terms of language. In my family for example, my mother’s first language is Spanish and second language is English. For me it’s the reverse. My Peruvian grandmother spoke only Spanish. A bilingual book allows children to enjoy reading times in two languages, in one, or the other, and also to acquire more language skills as children learn from contextualization and observing the art.

HANIA MARIËN: In an interview with La Bloga you mention that you put a great deal of time and effort into library research for your biographies as part of an effort to honor the histories of people whom the official record has often overlooked.  Do you ever have to look beyond the library for information about their lives? How do you translate your findings into “living” characters?

 MONICA BROWN: In my other life, I’m a literature professor, so I welcome the researchneruda aspects of my children’s biographies.  Some of it involves traditional research and in other cases I rely on interviews, film, creative works and even music.  For my biography Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People, for example, I read his collected words—his gift for language and lyricism inspired, and I hope, infused my writing. Listening to Tito Puente and Celia Cruz’s music was a central part of my creative process in trying to capture their spirit between the pages of a book!

HANIA MARIËN: You say you want all children to feel that their only limitation is their own imagination, and that it is our jobs as teachers, writers, artists and activists to make sure that this is true. What factors (beyond students’ imagination) do you believe currently present the most pressing limitations for children’s future?

MONICA BROWN: I think we have many challenges in terms of public education. We need more funding to provide smaller class sizes, a livable wage for teachers (a huge problem in my state of Arizona), resources for English language learners, as well as culturally representative curriculum that reflects the incredibly diverse history (and population) of children living in the United States. We’ve all heard of information poverty, but I worry equally about imagination poverty. Our children need access to literature, music, and the arts. They need books to model, inspire, instill pride, and affirm.  Books to inspire dreams and aspiration. When I tell the story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/Lado a Lado: la historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez) or introduce, bold, creative characters like Marisol McDonald (Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash/ y la fiesta sin equal, and Marisol McDonald and the Monster/y el monstruo) and Lola Levine (The Lola Levine Chapter book Series), I hope children feel more free in their identity, less limited by the stereotypical gendered and racial images they encounter in their everyday life.

HANIA MARIËN: Lastly, drawing upon your dedication to preserving and promoting cultures of the Américas, is there any advice or inspiration you can offer to the teachers reading this interview who may have young Latino/a students in their classrooms?

MONICA BROWN: Teachers can save lives, and they certainly shape young lives.  I was very lucky to have a tía who was a kindergarten teacher who gave me wonderful books at young age and led me on this path—a life built around words, stories, narrative, cultural celebration and creative expression. Books matter. Creativity matters. The opportunity to inspire young minds is a gift.  My advice is to offer books that reflect our Latinx student’s culture and proud heritage, and books that affirm bilingualism. This will counter messages of hate, anti-immigrant and “English only” rhetoric that have been even more blatant under our current administration. I am the proud child of an immigrant. We are here and we are staying. We all have different stories, but can be proud of a collective of care, nurturing, and pride in and for our children.

 


Book images and author photograph reprinted courtesy of the author directly from Monica Brown’s website. 

Summer Reading

May-2017-Vamos-a-LeerHi all,

We’re still here! Some of our students may have left the office, but a few of us are still here quietly working away during the summer months and our local book group is going strong.

So, I’m popping in with a few pieces of news to share.

First, keep your eye out for scattered updates from Hania, who will be keeping us company this summer as she shares more interviews from award-winning Américas authors and illustrators.

Second, I’m pleased to report that our local book group has decided to continue reading adult novels over the summer. In case you’re in Albuquerque and want to join us, or if you’re further afield and just want to follow along, below I’ve copied what we’ll be reading.

That’s it for now!  Don’t be surprised if you hear from us every now and again in the next few weeks when opportunities arise, but come August we’ll return to our scheduled content.

Cheers,
Keira

 

June 19th @ Tractor Brewing |  5:00-7:00 p.m.

1800 4th St NW, Albuquerque, NM 87102

Clarice-LispectorThe Complete Stories of Clarise Lispector

The recent publication by New Directions of five Lispector novels revealed to legions of new readers her darkness and dazzle. Now, for the first time in English, are all the stories that made her a Brazilian legend: from teenagers coming into awareness of their sexual and artistic powers to humdrum housewives whose lives are shattered by unexpected epiphanies to old people who don’t know what to do with themselves. Clarice’s stories take us through their lives―and ours.

From one of the greatest modern writers, these stories, gathered from the nine collections published during her lifetime, follow an unbroken time line of success as a writer, from her adolescence to her death bed.

NY Times Review / New Yorker / The Globe and the Mail / Paris Review

 

July 17th @ Casa Rondeña | 5:00-7:00 p.m.

733 Chavez Rd, Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, NM 87107

Umami

Umami / Umami by Laia Jufresa

It started with a drowning.

Deep in the heart of Mexico City, where five houses cluster around a sun-drenched courtyard, lives Ana, a precocious twelve-year-old who spends her days buried in Agatha Christie novels to forget the mysterious death of her little sister years earlier. Over the summer she decides to plant a milpa in her backyard, and as she digs the ground and plants her seeds, her neighbors in turn delve into their past. The ripple effects of grief, childlessness, illness and displacement saturate their stories, secrets seep out and questions emerge — Who was my wife? Why did my Mom leave? Can I turn back the clock? And how could a girl who knew how to swim drown?

In prose that is dazzlingly inventive, funny and tender, Laia Jufresa immerses us in the troubled lives of her narrators, deftly unpicking their stories to offer a darkly comic portrait of contemporary Mexico, as whimsical as it is heart-wrenching.

NPR Book Interview / The Culture Trip Review

Good Bye From the Blog Team: See You in the Fall!

Saludos todos!

I’m just popping in here to let our readers know that we are approaching the end of our semester, which means that we’re concluding our blogging schedule for the time being.  While we here at The University of New Mexico enjoy a reprieve of summer term, we hope that you, as educators around the country, do, too! We’ll be  back in August to share more resources with you and to continue our conversations around diverse literature in the classroom.

I also wanted to add a few personal notes on behalf of our whole blogging  team here at Vamos a Leer. For my own part, I will not be returning next year as a Mira, Look writer, since I am graduating from the UNM Latin American Studies Master’s program in just a couple weeks. I have greatly enjoyed these past two years working for this awesome blog, though, and I look forward to keeping up to date on future posts and publications! This summer I will be returning home to my native New York and looking for work while also getting ready to apply to law school for the following year. I’ll definitely miss the southwest sunshine!

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April 28th | Week in Review

2017-04-28-01.png¡Hola a todos! This is my last post of the school semester. I want to thank everyone for taking the time to look at sources I have shared through this blog. I am always pleased to share them with you and hopeful that they may be of use to you.

– You might only think of tortillas when you think of Mexico, but the country’s culinary repertoire goes far beyond that – in part because of the overlapping indigenous, Spanish, and French influences. The next time you’re using food as an introduction to Mexican culture, you might want to read this Illustrated Guide to Mexico’s Delicious Breads. The article discusses how bread was made more palatable with “the addition of indigenous ingredients, like corn, piloncillo, and chocolate. And then when the French began arriving to Mexico, they introduced European baking techniques, which have had long-lasting effects in the Latin American country.”

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¡Mira, Look! The Patchwork Garden/ Pedacitos de huerto and It’s Our Garden

Saludos todos! This week we are celebrating Earth Day with two wonderful books, which I will be reviewing side by side. The first book, The Patchwork Garden/ Pedacitos de huerto, written by Diane de Anda and illustrated by Oksana Kemarskaya, is a bilingual, fictional picture book that tells the sweet and inspirational story of a young girl who, with the help of her dear Abuela, learns to cultivate a garden and grow her own vegetables in the middle of her urban neighborhood. The second book, It’s Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden, written by George Ancona, is a non-fictional book equally sweet and inspirational, that tells the story of a group of children right here in New Mexico who grew and took care of their own vegetable garden. Together these two books can inspire readers of all ages to grow their own vegetables in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner. And, just as Abuela says in The Patchwork Garden, “‘They taste much sweeter than the ones you buy in the store.’”

The Patchwork Garden/ Pedacitos de huerto, tells the story of a young girl whose wise Abuela teaches her how to cultivate a healthy and fruitful garden, despite some modern-day challenges: “‘I wish I could have my own vegetable garden,’ replied Toña, ‘but there’s nothing but cement around our apartment building.’” Abuela reassures her, telling her that all you need is a small plot of land– a garden can be beautiful, no matter how small. With this information, Toña realizes that there is a little patch of dirt behind the neighborhood church that might be suitable for her garden, so she goes to ask Father Anselmo for permission to use it, adding that he can take as many colorful, sweet vegetables as he’d like: “‘Ah,’ said Father Anselmo, thinking of the fresh salads and steamed vegetables, ‘beautiful and healthy.’” As Toña and her Abuela embark on their journey of organizing a plan for their garden, they enlist the help and support of the community, simultaneously teaching others about sustainable living and healthy eating, while also fortifying their community bonds.

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