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.

March 24th | Week in Review

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¡Hola a todos! I am happy to be back and to share with you all of these amazing resources.

– The folks over at the Américas Book Award Facebook page have been on fire with recommendations for diversifying Women’s History Month. Here are a few highlights from their posts:

— As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, here is the story behind La Galería Magazine’s highlight of 10 Dominican Women and Herstory.

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10 Latinx Children’s Books on Food as Culture and Heritage

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Buenos días a todas y todos,

I hope this day finds you each doing well!

As the holidays near, we are invited to reflect on the significance that such days play in our own lives and in the lives of others.  We are reminded that the way we experience holidays differs from those around us: from one family to the next, one culture to the next, and from one generation to the next.  Notwithstanding these differences, there remains a constant and a uniting force: food.

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Reading RoundUp: 10 Children’s and YA Books with Diverse Latinx Perspectives

 

Vamos a Leer¡Buenos días a todos y todas!

As mentioned in Keira’s Sobre Septiembre post, this month’s Reading Roundup is related to the theme of Hispanic Heritage Month. To guide the direction of this month’s book list, I decided that it was imperative for me to determine what I believe Hispanx/Latinx heritage to be. Initially the task seemed easy enough, as I have certainly carved out an understanding of how I define my own Chicana/Latina heritage. Yet, as I attempted to make connections on a grand scale, I found myself unable. I felt as though I were distilling the vibrancy of an entire collective of people down to a single ingredient, a generalization, and a superficiality.

How does one meaningfully capture the range of cultural practices, traditions, languages, religions, geography, race, and ethnicity – just to name a few – of those who identify as Latinx? How could I be so bold to answer for others the deeply personal question of how they define their heritage? I am only able to define my own.

After much thought, I decided that the best way to view the tapestry of “Hispanx/Latinx heritage” was to hang it up, step back, and explore each pictorial design individually. For that reason, this month’s list will be focused on literature that possesses strong and individual narratives; where the author’s experiences, values, and diversity can seep through the text, allowing their unique Latinidad to be known.

Some of the narratives are rooted in reality, as in Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. Others are teeming with imagination and the fantastical, as in The Jumbies. Others still may be representative of someone’s reality, somewhere, as in ¡Sí! Somos Latinos/Yes! We are Latinos, or even Niño Wrestles the World.

I invite you to explore and articulate how you define your own unique heritage, or ask your students about theirs. Is the way you define your heritage different from that of your family? Is there literature that represents you? What would be an important element of your heritage that you would want to share with others?

I hope that you enjoy these books as I did and that the diversity within the Latinx experience abounds from their pages!

Mis saludos,

Colleen

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Reading Roundup: 10 Bilingual Children’s Books about Immigration

Vamos a Leer | Reading Roundup: 10 Bilingual Children's Books About Immigration

¡Buenos días!

For this month’s booklist I’ve compiled a “Reading Roundup” of 10 recommended bilingual books that look at the subject of Latin America/US immigration through the eyes of children. The titles are generally for ages five and up, and all include both English and Spanish text in the same edition.  We don’t propose that this is a definitive list of the best books on the topic, but we do highly recommend each of the books included here.

Although immigration is a dense and complicated topic, children’s books offer an accessible yet meaningful way to approach it – children can relate to the characters at eye-level.  This can be powerfully authenticating for students who have experienced these issues themselves. It may also be traumatizing and emotional for them, so know your students and be prepared to provide a supportive environment when reading this book. As for students who have never been exposed to immigration except through the generalizations and stereotypes heard on the news, these intimate stories involving family, acceptance, and struggle offer a worthwhile alternative and provide the space for the development of empathy. Continue reading

WWW: Three Latin American Poets and a Translator

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I am incredibly excited to share this week’s resource from the Wide World of the Web, because this resource not only contains the translated work of three phenomenal female modernist poets from South America, but it also helps tell the background story of how these three women came to be bound together in the June 1925 Issue of Poetry Magazine.  This historic issue, published in New York during a time when modernists such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot were working out ways to form a new poetic tradition for the 20th century, this June 1925 issue featured an astonishing thirty-one South and Central American poets.  Among them were poets Alfonsina Storni, Juana de Ibarbourou, and Gabriela Mistral (featured in Lorraine’s Mira Look post earlier this week).  In this amazing resource you will find the poets featured in 1925 organized according to country.  You can find Storni’s poem “Running Water” under Argentina, Mistral’s “Ecstasy” under Chile, and Ibarbourou’s “Bond” under Uruguay.  All three of these pieces are excellent examples not only of 20th century modernist poetry, but of the perspective of Western educated Latin American women of that time.

In Ibarbourou’s “Bond”, the poet replaces common articles of feminine adornment to symbolize the suffering endured by societal pressures of beauty.  Ibarbourou (spelled Ibarbouron in the 1925 edition), who was a lifelong advocate and writer on women’s rights in Uruguay and abroad, replaced diadems with a crown of thorns and earnings with “two burning coals vermilion.” Continue reading

WWW: Pelo Malo and Venezuelan Pop Music from the 70s

pelo malo juniorThis week we have an amazing film resource from Venezuela, 2013’s internationally-acclaimed Bad Hair (“Pelo Malo”). Writer/Director Mariana Rondón brings us this incredibly poignant story about a young boy named Junior who is obsessed with straightening his thick, curly hair, an obsession that drives his mother into a panic over her son’s masculinity.

Earlier this week, ¡Mira, Look! featured Laura Lacámara’s phenomenal book, Dalia’s Wondrous Hair (El cabello maravilloso de Dalia), a book that shares so many amazing similarities with today’s film, Bad Hair.  Firstly, and most obvious, they both deal with a child’s mix of struggle and enjoyment in learning to deal with their hair.  Both of the writers are women who come from Latin American countries with Caribbean coastline and strong Afrolatino cultures.  And, in the end, they both deal with love – love of community, love of family and love of self. That being said, let’s dive into some of the most salient points of Bad Hair, a film that will have you laughing and crying, and will surely leave you wanting to know more about life in Caracas, Venezuelan history, but mostly, it will leave you with a particular song stuck in your head.

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