Meg Medina is on a mission. The author of four books, including Milagros: Girl from Away and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, she casts strong Latina girls as her protagonists, an unusual occurrence in children’s literature. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, less than eight percent of children’s books published in 2013 were about people of color, a statistic Medina is adamant about changing—she even helped mastermind the Twitter campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which went viral last spring. She hopes her own realistic portrayals of Latino culture will rebuke negative stereotypes, while generating pride amongst the Latino community. Medina, currently in her fourth season of “Girls of Summer,” a blog series that highlights books that feature (and hopefully foster) strong girls, recently spoke with us about how she hopes her work affects the female community, the Latino community, and the community of children as a whole.
Putting a Different Lens on Community
When I think of community, I think of it on multiple levels. There’s a family community—the child and his family—the school community, the city that you live in. But it’s all interconnected. And in my case, I think of how stories of universal experiences connect us all.
I think story is a human impulse. Just think of cave paintings. Capturing what our experience has been is a basic way that we move through the world. What’s amazing to me is the similarities of experiences, especially when we’re talking about writing for children: the universal experiences of growing up, of wanting friends, of wanting connection with other people, of struggling to understand yourself, of pulling away from your family, of falling in love, feeling isolated and broken. All of those significant experiences of growing up are universal, whether you’re an African-American child, an Asian- American child, a Latino child, an Anglo child. We’re all struggling with those same desires and needs.
What is beautiful to me is what happens when we put a slightly different lens over the experience. Then we’re able to really appreciate the nuances of how we’re different, but still acknowledging that we have experiences that bind us…. It’s important that we know each other’s story, and become comfortable with each other’s lens, and with each other, period.
The Importance of Reading Your Story
I spent a lot of time thinking that my being Hispanic was something I had to get past in order to be successful. Sure, I was Cuban. I spoke Spanish. But it mattered more that I could shine academically. My roots were something that I kept completely separate from my idea of what success was going to be. And that’s sad. Because what I had found in life is that my culture and my roots were so entwined with my success.
I want to bring to kids this notion that who they are, the language of their families, whoever their families were in their home country, whether humble people, big-shot people—everybody’s story has value. I don’t want anybody to feel like they have to be embarrassed by their cultural heritage or it’s something that they have to get past in order to make it in this country.
They’re exactly enough. Who they are is exactly enough. And I think our jobs, as children’s book authors, as teachers, as librarians, is to help kids understand that early. That they have everything they need.
A lot of Latino kids are English dominant, so I want them to experience magical realism, which is such a part of Latino fiction, in their dominant language, and to be able to celebrate it as something that has its roots in our literature. I want them to feel that comfort and that pride as they’re sitting in their classroom, and 23 other kids are reading a book where the characters say words that they hear in their house and are eating things that they eat in their house.
It’s a subtle thing, but it’s also affirming that you exist, that your family has value and that the story of you, the story of your family, matters enough and is deserving of being captured in a story. When we have an absence of that, the implied message is that you don’t matter as much as the stories that are being captured.
Creating a Community of Strong Girls
I love to write for girls. I’m unabashedly feminist. I believe that we need to celebrate girls and empower girls and encourage them at every turn to be in charge of themselves, in charge of their bodies, their choices, their careers, their future. There’s so much to conspire against that. Just open any magazine. It’s crushing. So I write to help girls feel strong. I celebrate girls as they are.
I try to give them stories that give them a chance to reflect on themselves and things happening in their own life. I try to give them women in these books—not only the girls who are their age, but also the women who are adults—[who are] women as they are: resourceful, powerful, loving, strong.
Growing up into a healthy strong kid who’s resilient is really hard. I laugh when I hear people say to young people, “This is the best time of your life. You should be so happy. It only gets worse from here.” I’m like, “Do you remember? Do you have any idea the effort that goes into facing all of those problems for the first time? And getting your skills up to face them?” It’s tough. So I picture myself in a dark cave with a candle and young people behind me, and I’m holding up the light, [saying,] “You’re going to make it through this tunnel. You’re going to get through.”
The “So What” of It All
For me, the basic thing is the “so what” of it all. You can’t move through being an artist or being a writer just entertaining yourself—“I wrote this story for me, and it only matters to me.”
I have three children. You work like a dog when you’re a parent to raise them, and you put your best self in there. You’re working on creating somebody who’s going to be about light and good and positive things. And then you send them out into the world with all your hope. Creating any art form is like that too, but writing books for children especially. It’s your story only while you’re working on it on your computer. Then it becomes a book, and you send it out and it becomes everybody’s story. You send it out with hope that it’s going to do good and it’s going to be about light. So you want it to have meaning. You have to ask yourself, “How will this matter? How is this going to help something out there?”