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.

An Américas Award Interview: Duncan Tonatiuh

¡Feliz primavera! I’m thrilled to share another Américas Award interview with you, this time featuring Duncan Tonatiuh. Two of his books, Esquivel!: Space-Age Sound Artist and The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes were chosen to receive Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Awards in 2017. Read on to learn more!

-Hania

Duncan Tonatiuh.png

Duncan Tonatiuh (toh-nah-teeYOU) is the author-illustrator of The Princess and the Warrior, Funny Bones, Separate Is Never Equal, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, Diego Rivera: His World and Ours and Dear Primo. He is the illustrator of Esquivel! and Salsa. His books have received multiple accolades, among them the Pura Belpré Medal, the Sibert Medal, The Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award, The Américas Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award.

For more about his work, visit http://www.duncantonatiuh.com.

 

 

MARCH 29, 2017

HANIA MARIËN: You have an author name pronunciation guide on your website – can I ask how often your name has been mispronounced? Do you remember any particular experiences that stuck with you?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: It gets mispronounced very often. It is not hard to say Toh-nah-tee-YOU, but if you read Tonatiuh in English it looks odd. I sometimes tell people to not look at the name when they say it.

Tonatiuh means sun or god of the sun in the Nahuatl language, which is the language the Aztecs spoke. Tonatiuh is actually my middle name. Since my artwork is inspired by Pre-Columbian art I decided to sign my books Duncan Tonatiuh because I feel that it represents well what my artwork and books are about.

HANIA MARIËN: Did you read a lot with your family growing up? Do you remember any particular stories that inspired you?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: There were a lot of books around in my house when I was a kid. Some of the first books I remember reading are Horton Hatches an Egg, The Little Prince, and a book about a Mexican woodcutter called Macario. When I was in third grade I was really into the Choose Your Own Adventure series. My interest in reading and writing definitely began when I was a kid.

HANIA MARIËN: Can you elaborate on why you believe the stories you choose to write about are relevant to all students?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: I hope that my books are relevant to all children. I think they are definitely important for Latinx children. In the U.S. only about 3% of all the children’s books that are published every year are about or written by a Latinx, even though we are one of the largest groups in U.S. I think it is important for Latinx children to see themselves in books because it lets them know that their culture, their voices and experiences are valuable and important.

I hope my books are relevant to non Latinx children too. When children learn through books about people different than themselves they are less likely to have prejudices or be afraid of them when they are adults. I think that books can help children learn that we are all humans regardless of our skin color, national or ethnic background, religion, physical abilities or sexual preferences.

HANIA MARIËN: How can honoring the past help us understand the present? How and why might this be important at this moment in time?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: I made a book called Separate Is Never Equal about Mendez v. Westminster, a civil rights case that desegregated schools in California in the 1940’s. At the time Latinx children in many parts of the Southwest were not allowed to attend school with white children. I made that book for two main reasons. One is that it is an important piece of American History that not many people know about. The other reason is that although segregation is no longer legal the way it was in the 40’s, there is still a lot of segregation that happens in schools in the U.S. today.

According to a recent study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA African-American and Latinx children are twice as likely to attend a school where the majority of the students are poor and where less than 10% of the students are white. Their schools therefore tend to have less resources and less experienced teachers. I think that the story of the Mendez family can show students that it took courageous people to stand up against the prejudices that were prevalent at the time. I think it is a very important lesson today, given all the hostility that we see –especially from the current administration—towards Latinxs, Muslims, the LGBTQ community and other groups.

HANIA MARIËN: When you write a book, what is it you ultimately hope to share with your readers?
DUNCAN TONATIUH: I try to make books that are entertaining and interesting. My books tend to have an educational component too. Sometimes they teach young readers about art, history or social justice. But hopefully they do so in a way that is enjoyable and that doesn’t feel forced. As an author-illustrator sometimes I’m invited to visit different schools. When I present at a school I try to talk with the students and I try not to talk down at them. I share with them my process for making a book and tell them about what inspired me to become an author/illustrator. I hope that my love for reading, writing and drawing encourages them to enjoy and work on those things themselves. Hopefully my books have a similar effect.

HANIA MARIËN: In Separate is Never Equal you chronicle Sylvia Mendez’s family’s efforts to end school segregation in California. It’s clear that our schools still do not provide equal opportunities to learn for all students. In your opinion, how and to what extent do we see the legacies of Brown vs. Board of Education and Mendez vs. Westminster in our education system today? In your opinion, where do we go from here (i.e. what shifts would you like to see in education)?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: There is a lot of segregation in schools in the U.S. today. It is a big problem and I am not sure what the solution is. I think one important step though, is to acknowledge the issue and talk about it. I think a lot of people are blind to this problem or choose to ignore it. Learning about cases like the Mendez case and the Brown case helps people see how segregation has affected students in the past. It can also be a way to start discussing the current situation and think of steps we can all take to create a more fair landscape for students.

HANIA MARIËN: How might a teacher use this book to generate discussion about the legacy of school segregation with middle or high school students?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: I think the book can serve as a good introductory text. The Américas Award has created a wonderful educator’s guide with different ways to use the book in the classroom. You can find a link to it and  to other guides the Américas Award has created here: http://claspprograms.org/pages/detail/62/Teaching-Resources The guide is designed for elementary school students. It includes a list of complementary literature, though, and some of the literature it mentions is geared towards young adults.

I think the book can spark discussions but also projects. It is very exciting for me when students use my books as a jumping off point. After reading Separate Is Never Equal a group of fourth graders in Texas told me they were going to analyze who went to their school and whether it was segregated in comparison to other schools in their district. I think it would be interesting for middle school and high school students to take on similar projects.

HANIA MARIËN: In a TedX presentation you mention that migration is one of the key issues that concern Mexico and the United States. What advice would you give to teachers interested in discussing current events and policy decisions related to migration with their students?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: I think my book Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote can be a good discussion starter. The book is an allegory of the dangerous journey migrants often go through to reach the U.S. The book also shows how difficult it is for families to be separated. We hear the word immigration often in the media but we rarely hear about those aspects. When discussing immigration politicians often talk in statistics about the economy, or worse they use immigrants as scapegoats and claim they are terrorists and drug traffickers. In reality immigrants are some of the hardest working people and take on some of the most grueling jobs.

It is hard to keep up with the Trump administration and all the policy decisions they are making. I think immigration should be thought of as a humanitarian crisis, not as an issue of national security. People don’t leave their homes and risk their lives in an extremely dangerous journey to a foreign country because they want to. They do so because they are surrounded by poverty and violence at home and can’t find a better option.

HANIA MARIËN: Congratulations on your recent 2017 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book Award. Can you tell us a little bit about this most recent book and why you wrote it?

DUNCAN TONATIUH: I received two honorable mentions for illustration from the Pura Belpré Award this year. One was for Esquivel! which was written by Susan Wood and published by Charlesbridge. The book is a about a very creative and groovy Mexican composer named Juan García Esquivel. I had fun listening to Esquivel’s music and looking at fashion from the time to inform my drawings. I enjoyed creating hand-drawn type for different pages.

The other honorable mention was for The Princess and the Warrior. I am the author. It was published by Abrams. The book is my own version of a legend that explains the origin of two volcanoes located in central Mexico: Iztaccíhuatl, the sleeping woman, and Popocatépetl, the smoky mountain. The story has some similarities to Sleeping Beauty and to Romeo and Juliet, but it is set in the Pre-Columbian world. I really enjoy fables and fairy tales, but most of the ones I know or have read come from the European tradition. I think it is important to learn and celebrate folk tales from other cultures and traditions too. I first heard the legend of the volcanoes when I was a kid. I recalled it recently and I wanted to share it with young readers today.

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Reading Roundup: Loss and Resolution in Latinx YA Literature

Vamos a Leer | Loss and Resolution in Latinx YA LiteratureBuenos días a todas y todos,

Happy fall!  I hope this finds you each doing well and enjoying the changing of seasons.

Fall, my favorite time of year!  For me, it is characterized not only by the falling leaves, the crisp air, and the distinct scents that come with the changing temperature, but also with a gentle nostalgia, heightened reflection, and sense of calm.  In accordance with our theme for this month, we’re honoring this moment of reflection by pulling together a Reading Roundup that highlights strong protagonists who have experienced some form of loss and resolution in their lives. We hope that this will also be good preparation for teachers who are looking for resources that can help bring these difficult topics into the classroom.

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¡Mira, Look!: Tomás and the Library Lady

tomas-and-the-library-ladySaludos todos! Our book for this week is Tomás and the Library Lady, written by Pat Mora and illustrated by Raúl Colón. Although last week we focused on Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian at the New York City Public Library, this week we are focusing on the legacy of Tomás Rivera, another symbol of Latin American literature and Hispanic-American heritage. Like Belpré, Rivera loved literature and pioneered outreach projects to the Hispanic-American community. As an author, poet and professor, he was beloved for his enthusiasm and his passion for teaching, learning, and books. While we continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and the many sensational figures associated with that legacy, we are turning our attention this week to another exceptional figure.

Some of you may recognize Tomás Rivera’s name from one of my earlier posts featuring the 2016 Tomás Rivera Award recipients. The award, which is bestowed in memory of Rivera and his love for literature, honors exceptional Latinx children’s and young adult books. In line with many of the values now symbolized by Rivera’s legacy, this story shows the intercultural and intergenerational power of literature, as well as the timeless beauty of a shared culture.

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2016 Tomás Rivera Award Recipients

2016-08-24-Tomas-RiveraSaludos, todos! A couple days ago I shared here the 2016 winners of the Américas Award. Today, I will be featuring the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award winners.

The Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award was established in 1995 by Texas State University College of Education to honor and celebrate the Mexican American experience. The award was named after Dr. Tomás Rivera, the first Mexican American to be selected as Distinguished Alumnus of Texas State University. Aside from being a prolific scholar and creative writer, Tomás Rivera was also a bona fide lover of Mexican American literature, and even became known informally as the Dean of Mexican American Literature in his social circles. He traveled extensively throughout the Americas and Europe reading his own writing, and promoting the general pursuit and awareness of Mexican American literature.

In last year’s post on the 2015 Tomás Rivera award winners, Keira nicely framed Rivera’s influential writing and the impact that he has had on Latin American literature:

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2015 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award

Vamos a Leer | 2015 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book AwardIn the previous post, I shared the winners from the 2015 Américas Award. In the next, I’ll focus on the Pura Belpré. Now, however, allow me to focus on the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award.

About the Award

Texas State University College of Education developed The Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award to honor authors and illustrators who create literature that depicts the Mexican American experience. The award was established in 1995 and was named in honor of Dr. Tomás Rivera, a distinguished alumnus of Texas State University.

Dr. Rivera was the author of …y no se lo tragó la tierra / And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971), a groundbreaking novel that provided one of the first visceral depictions of what it meant to be a migrant worker in the United States. While I encourage all our readers to visit the award website to read the more complete biography of Dr. Rivera, I also want to share here a bit of what they wrote about Dr. Rivera’s importance at the time and the ongoing legacy he contributed to Mexican, American, and Mexican-American cultures. It captures the importance not only of Dr. Rivera’s lifetime accomplishments, but also the significance of having a children’s book award award named in his honor.

Tomás Rivera’s writings have provided tremendous hope for generations of migrants who had previously not had their lives inscribed and valorized in literature, ensuring with his literature that their lives were not lived in vain or forgotten. His enduring presence through his literature will long stand in the United States as an example of what the Mexican American community is capable of nurturing, educating, and producing. About our education, he said, “A highly quality education provided at all levels for the Hispanic communities will insure stronger individuals, and in turn a stronger community. This type of education must be one of our constant and basic demands. We can only insure this education if we lead, if we become involved in getting it, if we have in it, and most importantly, if we make it part of our prophecy.”

The creation of this Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award in his honor goes a long way towards keeping alive the prophecy he saw as part of our legacy as members of a healthy and responsible community. This children’s book award will also work towards sustaining the vision he saw for the education of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and the greater United States. It is therefore unquestionably right and proper that this award be given in his name, his honor, his prophesy.

2015 Winners

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¡Mira, Look!: In My Family/En mi familia by Carmen Lomas Garza

Today marks the first day of National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct 15). In honor of this I present you with a book that celebrates Mexican-American culture and traditions. In My Family/En mi familia by Carmen Lomas Garza (ages 6 +) is an award-winning bilingual picture book illustrated with the author’s own paintings.

The author, who is one of the most prominent Mexican-American painters living today (Lee & Low Books) writes on the first page:en mi familia

“Every time I paint, it serves a purpose-to bring about pride in our Mexican American Culture. When I was growing up, a lot of us were punished for speaking Spanish. We were punished for being who we were, and we were made to feel ashamed of our culture. That was very wrong. My art is a way of healing these wounds, like the savila plant (aloe vera) heals burns and scrapes when applied by a loving parent or grandparent”.

Lomas Garza’s desire to celebrate her Mexican American identity makes this book a great resource for introducing Hispanic Heritage Month in the classroom.

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