Meg Medina’s stories for all: Immigrant past shaped multicultural future

Meg Medina’s stories for all: Immigrant past shaped multicultural future
MONICA HOOPER
mhooper@nwadg.com

The pains of growing up are universal, but they can also exist as a meeting space in our global community by listening to each other’s stories. From friends moving away to navigating junior high and beyond, author Meg Medina has crafted several picture books, junior high school novels and young adult novels that feature strong Latinx characters exploring the pains of growing up and the places where culture and family intersect. She will be at the Fayetteville Public Library on Tuesday, April 26, for a rescheduled talk with news director and anchor of Univision Arkansas, Andrea Delgado, after spending the day with public school students. The talk begins at 6:30 p.m.

“The library is beyond excited to host Newbery Award winner Meg Medina. With a focus on family and culture, [Medina’s] writing has touched so many readers of all ages, and we can’t wait to present her to our community,” enthuses Willow Fitzgibbon, director of library services. “This event will be extra special with youth activities and a free Cuban-inspired meal for attendees. [It’s] sure to be a joy to everyone who attends.”

Medina was originally scheduled to be a part of FPL’s True Lit programming last year, but the event was canceled because of the pandemic. She has won many awards including the 2019 Newbery Medal for “Merci Suarez Changes Gears.” Her young adult novel, “Burn Baby Burn,” was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award. Despite so much acclaim, she is warm and down-to-earth.

“I grew up in Queens, N.Y.; my parents arrived from Cuba in the early ’60s. I was raised by my mom in Queens,” Medina explains in an interview. “I was the first one born in my family here in the United States, but I grew up very much sort of feeling bi-cultural.” She adds that later her mother’s family emigrated to the U.S., giving her a childhood surrounded by family — similar to characters in her books.

“I was growing up also as an American child,” she says. “There weren’t many bilingual books available. There weren’t many stories that centered on or featured Latino kids. So I read. I learned English with ‘Romper Room,’ which is an old timey show back then. And in school, and with my friends, I read all the books that you think of when you think of, you know, an American childhood. My mother had been a teacher in Cuba, so she knew, regardless of how well she mastered English or not, she knew that reading and literacy was really central to being successful in school and in life. So she invested in a set of World Book Encyclopedias that she bought on installments. I still remember it.”

Between encyclopedias and school reading, she says “I really did fall in love with reading and stories.” Later on she says “I found my way to literature from not only Latino writers, but writers all over the world. And I still read that way. I love to read writers across all kinds of cultures.”

Medina says that she always wanted to be a writer, but the need for stability guided her to other professions such as teaching, journalism and public relations.

“I was one of those people who couldn’t quite find what they wanted to do. I knew I loved stories, and I loved writing. But when you grow up in an immigrant household where money is tight, and there are very, very practical considerations, it’s very hard to say, ‘Hi, I’m going to do a life in the arts’ that has no security and no health benefits in any of that. So I tried to do other jobs for most of my life,” she explains.

“I tried everything to satisfy the writing bug without actually taking the plunge into writing. But here’s what I have found out … when you have a natural sort of urge and inclination for it, it’s sort of fruitless to fight it because you don’t feel complete without doing it,” she goes on. “As a teacher and a mother, I fell in love again, with works for children, the voice, the breadth of story that we have now. The humor, the love, the hope of it, all of it, just spoke to me. And so the year that I turned 40, I decided that I was going to quit my job, and I was going to really try to start writing for children. And, you know, I was very fortunate that I was successful.”

Over the last 18 years, Medina’s books have tackled family issues and the universal themes of growing up and experiencing change. Most importantly, she hopes to undo harmful stereotypes imposed on Latinx communities. In her acceptance speech when she won the Newbery Medal, she told the audience:

“The real question is, what do you do with that precious gift? It has to amount to more than having a sticker on your book and a pretty medal sitting in a curio cabinet. For me, it has meant figuring out how to use my visibility to bring new authors to the table, and how to encourage readers — whether they’re parents, teachers, librarians, or young people — to read widely, diversely and voraciously. It has meant using my visibility to be an ambassador of cultures to readers at a time when our country is wrestling with so many divisive narratives.”

When asked how she has faced the challenge of being “an ambassador of cultures” in recent years, she says:

“It’s very easy for people to fall into stereotypical understandings of each other and to create and to have fear of what they consider ‘the other.’

“Right now the narratives have become so so pitched and pointed, so politicized, including the weaponization really in children’s literature: What’s in it and what can’t be in it, what can’t be said, those those kinds of things,” she explains. When she visits schools, she says, “sometimes I’m going to school where the kids are mostly Latino, right, so they have a lot in common with me. Sometimes I’m at a school unbelievably, where I might be the first Latino author or sometimes [Latino] person that they’ve interacted with. I fill a space in both those situations.”

Medina goes on to say that she acts as a role model for kids who might see writing as a “possible career.”

“In the case of situations where I’m different, let’s say, then most of the student body gets to interact and really experience and have an authentic exchange with someone … They get to ask me all the questions and be in true conversation with me and have relationships. I think that’s the beautiful part.”

She adds that “kids’ books so often allow for connection, it allows us to create these deeper understandings of people who sometimes are like us and are different than we are. So that’s one way I guess that I’m an ambassador, and I’m lucky in this particular platform that I can — if I’m asked my opinion on different issues — offer it respectfully and honestly. And I hope that that’s a model of how we talk with one another. And how we consider children and children’s books, and schools and parenting and all of those really important things that go into helping young people grow into healthy adults.”

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FYI

An Evening With Meg Medina

April 26

Fayetteville Public Library

5-6 p.m. — Friendship bracelets in the Starr Foundation Children’s Craft Room. This activity was inspired by Meg Medina’s book, “Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away.”

5:30 p.m. — Event Center doors open; library staff asks that all guests arrive at least 15 minutes before the event to locate seats for their group.

5:30 p.m. — Pick up Cuban-inspired boxed dinners provided by 641.DELI while supplies last. Meals can be eaten in the Event Center.

6:30-7:30 p.m. — Conversation with Meg Medina and news director and anchor of Univision Arkansas, Andrea Delgado. The program includes a Q&A session with the audience.

7:30 p.m. — Book sale and signing.

Register at www.faylib.org/event/6326504.

Learn more about Meg Medina at megmedina.com.

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Medina Recommends

Meg Medina recommends these authors: Lamar Giles, Renee Watson, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Christina Soontornvat and Erin Estrada Kelly.

Categories: Family Friendly