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“Our stories are now part of the history of the United States”

Por Mariel Fiori
April 2024
Interview with Meg Medina, National Ambassador for Young People's Literature
The author of bestsellers and highly acclaimed works, Meg Medina, currently serves as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature for the years 2023 and 2024 appointed by the Library of Congress. Medina is the first Latina writer to be named to this prestigious position. Many know her for the trilogy of novels about the Suárez family, which won Newbery medals. In 2008, she wrote her first novel, Milagros: Girl from Away, and in 2011, Tia Isa Wants a Car, based on the true story of her aunt, Isaira Metaute, who emigrated from Cuba. "That little book won an award, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award, and from that day on, libraries and teachers took notice of my books, and my career began to grow. Since then, I won the Pura Belpré Award for my book Mango, Abuela, and Me," and she continued writing, teaching, and telling stories of Latino families in the United States, winning awards along the way.

What does it mean to be the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature?
It's a position that lasts for two years. It's something provided by the Library of Congress and Every Child Ready to Read. They select a person to contribute to the literary life of students for two years nationwide. So, through this position, I travel across the country to schools, libraries, speaking with parents, teachers, and students about their literary lives. Books, books, and more books!

How are children thus far in reading?
Well, COVID changed a lot of things. It was a massive disruption for all children, but it's well known that Latino and Black children suffered many more setbacks in their academic achievements. As National Ambassador, I want to change the concept of reading as merely a school subject, something boring, something you have to take an exam on at the end of the year. That's not truly reading. That's just what we do in school. But reading, having a literary life, is about having a fun habit, a refuge, a place where in those pages, you can see yourself. You can understand your peers better. You can understand the world better. I believe that if we read in that way as a family, if we have the habit of going to the library, of allowing books to be part of our lives at home, in our homes, we have a chance to connect better, to understand each other better, and thus also have more success in school.

Tell me about Cuéntame: Let’s Talk Books, a specific initiative to promote reading in our communities.
I was born here, so my Spanish is bland, as they say. And my daughter Sandra's, even worse. She was born here, and the Spanish she knows she learned at school and by listening a little at home, as happens in our families. But when I told her that I had been given this position, I told her that I needed a name for what they call the platform, which is basically what I want to signify for the students. And Sandra said to me: why not? Cuéntame? Story me? Those two words: "cuenta" and "me". The idea of bathing a child in stories, of giving them all the possible stories, not only the stories from books but also the personal stories of our families, those stories that sometimes have roots of hope, have sad moments. All of us who have come to this country have stories. And those stories are now part of the history of the United States, and part of that child's history too. Cuéntame has three parts. The first is to connect families and children to the public library. Create in them the habit of going weekly or twice a month to look for material. The second is to help the children. They tell me about the books they like. They give me recommendations, and I tell them about the books I'm reading that I like. We talk about books with enthusiasm, with love, with light instead of something mandatory. And the third part is that I want to have an audio archive at the Library of Congress using 30 authors who are writing books for children today. Many times, when we choose books for children, we choose books that were written 50, 100 years ago. But today there are many magnificent books, especially written by Latino authors and authors of diverse backgrounds. I think that would also be a treasure for children.

And how do we access that archive?
First, they must follow me. If you search for "Meg Medina" on the Library of Congress page, you'll find it there. You can also find it on "Every Child a Reader," which has many materials that can be downloaded for free to use with my books, to follow the Cuéntame: Let’s Talk Books tour. You can also follow me on all my social networks because whenever I go to a school, I post a video, talk about the community, and give tips for writing and reading better.

How do you feel about the responsibility of being the first Latina woman in this position as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature?
Well, it's exciting, as you can imagine. It's an enormous responsibility. I think I am the ambassador for all children in this country, but I know that for Latino children, for our family, I mean something very particular and special. I am the first, but I don't want to be the last. I want many children to follow me and to start liking reading, writing, or drawing more. To think that being librarians or working in this branch of books and in publishing houses is possible. Also, since I am bicultural, I am very similar to them. I have the same experience, sometimes language problems, how to translate not only the words but the feeling and culture. How to exist as a person in those two environments.

You were at the Newburgh Library. How was the reception here in New York?
How I enjoyed going to Newburgh! It's a city two hours from New York. I grew up in Queens but had never been to Newburgh. I learned so many things in Newburgh. I didn't know there were so many Latinos, especially newcomers. So many people came to the library, there was food and games and talks about books, and it was a lot of fun. It was very welcoming. I was very excited to see the community. I learned that we often forget about these communities. When you travel through Newburgh, you see some houses that you realize were once mansions. It was a very wealthy place but it fell, and now it's a community that's trying to revive. I have a lot of hope because what I see are several groups of people that we can unite through the library. Above all, I think, how can we unite all these people from different countries with different points of view for something positive in the community? How can we use these new voices for something positive? And I have a lot of hope. I want to help in that as much as possible. Reading and books are ways to unite people. Libraries are places where that is possible. Having literature is like having a mirror that reflects everyone who is part of that community.

What advice do you have for young writers?
Above all, read a lot! When you read, you not only learn a new vocabulary that you acquire, you also realize the styles of each writer. You realize how they made you feel fear, for example, or perhaps hope. How did they make you cry on that page? What was it? That's how you gain experience. So reading is the best way to have that knowledge base. Also, one learns to write by writing. Don't be afraid to write something terrible because almost always what I write the first time is terrible. That's what the second time is for, your second draft and the delete button on the computer. Don't be afraid. Sometimes you need to write the terrible to know what is terrible, to then make it better. If you don't write anything, you don't have a chance to do anything better.

*You can listen to the full interview with Meg Medina at this link: 
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