Critics describe the work of Richmond-based author Meg Medina as nuanced, empowering, realistic and unflinching. Strong, female characters are at the center of her award-winning books that examine migration, bullying and cultural identity. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.
Learn more: Follow Meg Medina's work at her website and discover book recommendations at Girls of Summer, a blog she co-writes with author Gigi Amateau. Find information about the Diverse Books campaign, an intiative to expand access to multicultural books.
At Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, author Meg Medina tells an auditorium full of students about her family history.
Meg Medina: My whole family came from Cuba, first my father, then my mother, then my sister and then I was born here, I was L’Americanità, the little American.
Then her father met another woman and left the family. Medina’s mother, furious about this betrayal, decided she wouldn’t give her baby daughter a Latina name.
Medina: So I have a family where everybody sounds like this, everybody’s named this: Felipe, Ada Rosa, Carlito, Lidia Maria, Delia and Margaret Rose.
Margaret Rose, after the Queen of England’s sister.
Medina: It was unbelievable. But it was sort of the beginning of my life in two worlds. Maybe some of you have this problem, your family comes from another country and so you were born here or raised here and so you’re in the middle and you’re always translating. You’re what we call bicultural.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia and raised in Queens, New York, Medina draws from her own bicultural experiences to create universal stories of growing up. Designed to be accessible by a wide audience, her childrens and young adult books reflect the diversity that’s all around us.
Medina: It is a powerful thing to be able to see your own culture spoken, it’s a very empowering thing. When you don’t see it, the implied message is that it doesn’t matter, it’s not as important.
That diversity was missing from the books Medina had access to as a youth. It wasn’t until her twenties that she opened the pages of House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.
Medina: I was a great reader, I read all kinds of things, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Nancy Drew, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Judy Blume, you name it, I read all of that but there weren’t Latinos in the pages. That didn’t bother me. It didn’t stop me from being a good reader but man when I finally came to Sandra’s work and I saw my own culture there, the change was just explosive inside of me.
Medina worked as a teacher, journalist and communications professional before making a big decision to quit her job and become an author. Her first book was the young adult novel Milagros followed by a children’s book, Tia Isa Wants a Car. Inspired by her real Aunt Isa who secretly took bilingual driving lessons, the illustrated book incorporates issues of immigration, split families and remittances as well as a woman’s determination to bring her niece to the beach.
Medina: As I wrote that story I was really thinking about how nobody thought my Aunt could learn to drive because she was so nervous, how there was so little money to even buy a car.
She did learn to drive and she did save up money, and one day Tia Isa showed up with a Buick Wildcat.
Medina: It was like our first step into freedom because we weren’t tied to the bus anymore. We could really go everywhere. So that sense that the person whose least among us can do something spectacular, that ended up being important. The idea of that first movement into being part of American culture, owning a car, owning a home, those kinds of things.
Medina used magical realism in her next novel to tell a story about identity, migration, love, loss and hope. The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind features another strong Latina character, Sonia Ocampo who confronts some heavy issues, including the violence associated with crossing borders.
Medina: Young people need, the way they need air, they need hope. They need to be able lift their eyes and imagine that something better is waiting for them and so that’s what the novel’s about, the role of hope and why people migrate. My hope, when I finished that book and stood back, my hope is that the book can be used as just a conversation starter: why people move, what the issues are, because certainly the conversation is completely toxic when we approach it from the political standpoint.
Medina doesn’t whitewash difficult topics - youth experience all sorts of pains and frustrations and she trusts them with the truth. This authenticity is prominent in Medina’s most recent book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. The protagonist, Piddy Sanchez, becomes the target of a bully and must respond to both psychological and physical violence.
(Medina reads from book)
Medina: It’s really the story of her unraveling in face of bully and in face of the social media campaign that sort of sustains that. But more than a bullying book it’s also a book about culture, because she’s asking herself questions. Her bully is Latina and she is Latina, right, so what does it mean to be Latina? Which one of us is “more” Latina or “less” Latina? It’s a story about her relationship with her mother and father who’s been absent, and mostly in my mind it’s a story about finding resilience.
In the book, Medina calls this finding your clave.
Medina: A clave is a beat, it’s central to Cuban music. There’s a 3/2 clave and a 2/3 clave and if you listen closely to any salsa, do it when you’re driving around, you will hear that beat, that’s what drives the whole song, it doesn’t change. And so girls need a clave, you have to find this thing inside of you which is so elusive when you’re 15, 16, 17 of what makes you you, what’s unshakeable. So it’s a novel about how you find out what’s unshakable.
Although the novel has won top honors, including the 2014 Pura Belpré Award, it’s been censored by some schools and institutions. Medina’s been disinvited from speaking events and asked to cover up the title.
Medina: When we do things like that we confirm for kids their worst fear about adults, and that’s that we’re disconnected from their experience, that we don’t understand what they’re going through, that we can’t even name what they’re going through, so how can they possibly turn to us with the truth?
Thankfully, says Medina, many teachers and librarians have vouched for the book and it’s getting into the hands of young people. Medina’s hope is that it starts conversations, provides relief and helps readers of all ages self-reflect.
Medina: Because that’s where change happens, I maintain that always. That’s what so magical about reading and why we can not let reading become just like reading a passage and answering questions. It has to be reading real books about real experiences because in those pages, in that quiet time when the kid is completely by himself immersed in this story that reader is asking himself or herself, Who am I in this story? What would I do, What is it in my life that was like this? And in turning those questions around I think they become deeper people and more emphatic people and I think that’s why we want kids to read that’s why we love books.
Fans of Medina have two new works to look forward to; In between school residencies and speaking engagements, Medina is working on a picture book that’s coming out next year:
Medina: Mango, Abuela and Me about a little girl who doesn’t speak Spanish, a grandmother who comes to live with her who doesn’t speak English and a parrot they buy to help.
And she’s writing a new novel, a work of historical fiction titled Burn Baby Burn about a New York teen falling in love during the turbulent summer of 1977. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.