Growing up in Queens
I grew up in Queens, New York, in Flushing, Queens. I was actually born in Alexandria, Virginia, but my mother, my sister, and I moved to Queens when I was a baby. So, that’s really where I was raised. I lived in a four-story brick building, a walk-up, no elevator in Flushing. And it was a place with a lot of working-class families. Everybody rode the bus here and there.
I went to PS 22. And it was a really wonderful way to grow up, but I was really growing up biculturally. My mother was from Cuba, and she spoke Spanish. And eventually as I grew up, more and more relatives from Cuba joined us. My tías, my tíos, my grandparents. For a while we all lived in this one little apartment until people got their own place.
And the beautiful part of that was it was a little strange because when my family first came, they came through the airport, right. They didn’t come through Ellis Island the way we think, you know, the romantic way of the way we think of immigration. But they came, and I remember when they arrived because they were standing at the bottom of the stairs, and they were all wearing coats I think that they had gotten from the refugee center.
But waiting in our apartment my mother had two pim, pum, pam we called them in Spanish, the rollaway beds, for my aunt and the sofa bed for my grandparents. And it was so exciting because, you know, most kids are born into a family, right, but I was meeting my family because they came out of Cuba a little bit at a time. And then that just changed my world completely. Abuela Bena, my mother’s mother, became my babysitter.
And my aunts and my mother worked together in a factory in Queens, in the Electronic Transistor Corporation. And so I was an American child during the day at school with my friends eating peanut butter and jelly and Twinkies and playing all kinds of games. And then at 3:00 when I came home, I entered my other world, which was Cuba, except in Queens, New York.
A family of storytellers
My whole family was a family of storytellers. They would never say that to you. If you asked them, “Are you a cuentero, are you a storyteller?”, they would just shrug because I think that’s just how they moved through the world. I think when you lose your country the way that they did, they used story I think to feel better, to remind themselves of who they had been in Cuba, to remind themselves of family and good times.
But the most important thing I think they did for me is that they used story to connect me to who I was, to who my family was before we were here. So, Abuela Bena was the best one of all. Now, she only went to school until the eighth grade or so. In Cuba she rolled cigars for a living. She was a very humble person. Her children, my mother, my aunts, they were the first generation that went to university.
But Abuela Bena had not. So, when I met her in Queens, she was my babysitter after school, and I would come home and I’d find her watching lucha libre on TV. And, you know, she was not a person that had good filters about what should kids watch, what stories should we share with children. So, we’d watch lucha libre, and I’d say, “Abuela, is this really happening?” as people were banging chairs over each other. And she’d go, “What a crazy question. Of course it’s happening. It’s real.”
And she was just delightful that way. And then she’d sit down and she’d tell me stories, and they weren’t the stories I’m pretty sure that my American friends were getting from their grandparents. So, Abuela Bena would say, “I’ll tell you the story.” And one time she told me the story of the hurricane of 1933. My tía Isa had been born that year. She was an infant. And this terrible storm came through Cuba and basically wiped out their whole village.
And the memory I have is Abuela Bena under this cloud of smoke saying to me, “I could still smell the dead on my street,” and things that would really scare somebody who was seven, but it just transported me. And then there were just all kinds of stories, little stories about the parks in San Bella Grande and the beautiful Spanish architecture and how you’d sit on the porch waiting for the ice cream man to come through and the mangos and the chickens. And it was all so far away from my life in Queens.
I had brick, I had cement, I had the city, which had its own beauty, but it wasn’t a tropical island. It wasn’t sugary sand under my toes. It wasn’t the river rushing behind your house. Nothing like that. But I loved those stories because they were so sensory but also because they were like a ribbon connecting me to who I was.
And I think kids need to know who they were, who their parents were, especially if they’re growing up here and their parents were from elsewhere because sometimes we get the idea here that this is all there is, that this is the right way to live, that this is the only way to live, and that’s not true. There are beautiful things from the places that we come from and the things we left behind.
Even if we left behind in difficult circumstances, there were things to love about there. There were things that made an imprint on our parents and that in some way can make imprint on us. So, when I think of my grandmother as the cuentista and the stories that they told me, I’m just so grateful that she gave me that time.
Reading Charlotte’s Web
I was a really good reader interestingly because I was also a child who had trouble sitting still. I was always racing and running somewhere, but I really liked story. I liked writing stories, I liked reading stories, and I read everything that kids read, American kids read, the canon. You know, Charlotte’s Web and Nancy Drew and all of those things I read. But for me I think it was a nice escape. It was words.
But I’ll tell you the one day that I most remember about reading – well, there were two. One was the day that I read Charlotte’s Web and I began to cry. And I think that has always remained my favorite book because it was the first time that a book connected me to an emotion in my own life. You know, when you’re little, sometimes the first way that you’re reading is just you get in the story just to unlock the words.
But then there’s this magical thing that happens, and for me it happened somewhere in the third grade with that book that it connects you emotionally. And that scene where Charlotte leaves her little eggs to everybody, to Wilbur, for me that was just so sad and so beautiful.
Learning to read in Spanish
The other event I remember was my uncle, Tío Ermin, writing – sitting down and teaching me to read in Spanish.
They had ordered from someplace in New Jersey or Miami back then an early reader. It was simple. So, I spoke Spanish, but I had no idea how to read it. And so my uncle, my mother’s only brother, he sat down next to me and he said...
“Oye, a, e, i, o, u, el burro sabe más que tú.”
And I laughed and he said “Repeat it,” and I did. I repeated that rhyme. And he said, “Listen, in Spanish it’s not all this fancy stuff in English. The letters always say the same thing. They always sound like that. So, you just have to sound them out always the same way: a-e-i-o-u.” And we sat down and I started to unlock the words.
And I remember everything about that day. I remember the smell of my uncle. I remember the thrill of being with him but also just the thrill of unlocking the language in writing and in reading that I could already speak. It was beautiful. I wish every child has that experience. It’s one thing to speak Spanish and English, but it’s also another thing to be really literate in it.
And, you know, after that my aunts, as I said, were teachers and so on. So, they taught me the L-L, the little funny tilde over the N, the accents. I’m not very good at accents still, but they taught me the basics of how to write and encouraged me to write letters to my cousins who were still in Cuba. And that’s how I did that. I learned to read and write in Spanish with my uncles and my aunts.
And I can’t say that I write and read Spanish today as well as I do English, but that’s my job now. I’m really deciding that although I can read and write in Spanish, I’d like to do it as well as I do in English. So, these days I’m trying to buy a lot of adult literature in Español and read and just listen to the news in Spanish and really just get my vocabulary more developed and just be able to read and write faster and deeper.
The life of girls
When I talk about the life of girls, I really like to write books that speak to the experience of girls as it is, smart girls, resilient girls, girls who are great at sports, at math, at science, girls who are in conflict with their moms, are in conflict with their friends, girls who fall in love with a boy in their class. You know, I really – just the whole rich experience of that.
I also like to talk about girls at all ages, including grown-up girls. So, sometimes in children’s books because we like to have the child solve the problem, we kill off the parents or we make them really dumb or absent. They’re working. They’re on vacation or something like that. I never like to do that because I think that sure, there will be women, there will be people in girls’ lives, adults, that aren’t very helpful, but there are also women out there who can help you: your grandmother, your mother, your aunt, your cousin, the neighbor across the street.
And I think we all learn so much as we grow up from girlhood to womanhood, and that’s what I really like to celebrate in my books, girls of all ages sort of slugging it out there, embracing their imperfections, and growing up and just finding their voice.
Girls of Summer
Girls of Summer is one of my favorite projects of all. It started as just a very personal project that my friend, Gigi Amateau, and I did together. Our daughters were getting ready to go to college. They were 18 years old, and we were really sad. It was like, “Oh no, we’re not going to have them anymore.” And we felt like we had run out of time to be their friend and their mother. And so we started thinking like about how we used books in our lives to be better mothers and what were the books that we used like when our daughters hit hard parts of life?
Like what were the books that helped them? And Gigi, of course, is an author. She writes strong girl characters in her books as well, although her voice is the Southern American voice. So, that year we said, “I bet we could pick 18 books, one for each year of their life that represents strong girls, from picture book all the way to young adult.” And we did. And then we put it on a blog. And then very nervously we invited some authors to talk with us.
Well, fast-forward now, we’re in our fifth year. This year it will be our fifth anniversary. And what happens now is that we have the blog. We continue to pick 18 books every year. And the publishers now send us copies that we can give away, and the authors come on our blog. Every Friday we have a different author and she’ll sit down and talk with us about her book, about why her character’s a strong girl, about who she was growing up herself, all kinds of questions.
And we have a gigantic launch party where we live. We live in Richmond, Virginia. So, we do this party at the Richmond Public Library. And it’s between two and three hundred young girls, mothers, and librarians show up and sometimes brothers and dads and cousins come too. And it’s a gigantic party. We give away free ice cream. We give away the entire list of the younger books and then the middle grade and YA books.
And we interview in live time one of the authors on our list. So, basically it becomes a rock concert for book geeks and girls. And we love it. It’s so exciting and so fun. And what’s happened is it’s become this way to use books to improve the lives of girls in our city, to improve people’s visitation to the public library in Richmond, Virginia. The books circulate a lot.
There’s always a lot of interest. Like the library does a fantastic job. They’ll create treasure hunts for the titles before we’ve actually revealed what they are. And then the night they transform the whole library. Like this year our featured author was Hannah Barnaby, who had a wonderful book called The Wonder Show, set in a circus in 1933. And so they turned the entire library into a circus scene, including cutouts like strongman cutouts except it was strong girl cutouts, and you could put your face in there and be photographed.
And there were popcorn machines and cotton candy. It was just lovely. So, of all the things that I do, that’s one of the things I’m proudest of because it’s endured and because there’s always a lot of interest. And at this point we have people from all other places asking us how could we do a Girls of Summer list in our library or can you come and bring some of the authors to our city, and that’s really fun. Our heart remains with Richmond Public Library. I want to say that. That event will always be there, but we are figuring out ways to connect it out to other cities in Richmond – in Virginia. So, we’re excited about that.
Diversity in books
We have about 5,000 books published every year, children’s books. And according to the University of Wisconsin, last year in 2013 only about less than 3 percent were by or about a Latino. And really no minority group does much better.
The same sad statistics hold for African American characters, for native people, for Asian American characters and so on. The problem is that that doesn’t reflect who’s in the seats in our public schools, especially now when our public schools are majority minority. And so it’s not that I want to take away wonderful books like Charlotte’s Web and other books that feature white characters. Why not? I love them.
But what’s important is that we have books that celebrate everybody’s story. And what I think is that it’s our best chance if we could really get those numbers up and get lots of books that feature diverse characters. It’s our best chance to teach kids empathy in a real and true way. They’re going to develop empathy in a classroom where they have to make friendships really with people from other cultures.
But books help that along because it’s a private experience. It’s a public experience when we’re reading the book in the classroom, but it’s also this beautiful private experience where the child truly steps inside the shoes of someone else and starts to ask himself or herself, “Who am I in this story? What would I do? How is this like my experience, and how is it different?” And why is empathy important? It turns out it’s very important. It’s the number one skill for the 21st century skillset.
It’s what companies say makes the mark of a truly great leader, the ability to really understand how workers from all backgrounds think and make decisions. So, if you want to think about reading in its last, you know, incarnation in terms of how it prepares people for the world, it does. It provides them with this opportunity to be empathetic and deep leaders. But I think it also just is fair to come to school every day and to be able to see yourself and your friends in the books that you’re reading.
We Need Diverse Books campaign
So, We Need Diverse Books started in response to Book Expo America. They had advertised a panel of children’s book luminaries. And it included six white men. Nothing against those authors. They’re wonderful authors, but in 2014 you cannot name a panel and not include women and not include authors of color. It’s impossible. It’s not representative.
And I would say that Book Riot did a great job of sounding the bell and calling them out. And Ellen Oh, who is a Korean American author, children’s book author in conversation said to me one day and to others, she said, “This is ridiculous. We have to do something big.” And I said, “Sure, I’m in,” never imagining that Ellen Oh is the force of nature that she is.
So, she organized with the help of many talented new multicultural authors with the help of really some established people like Jacqueline Woodson and Grace Lin and others a Twitter campaign. We Need Diverse Books because and people held up signs and they answered the question, and it quickly went viral. Internationally it became the number one trending hashtag.
And since that time it’s become an organization that is raising money to promote scholarships for authors who are multicultural, for helping libraries get books, just for continually pushing to have authors of color at the various conferences that happened nationally to promote truly diverse children’s books.
The goal I think is that someday we don’t want to have a diversity panel. We want to have panels that are diverse. We want authors of color represented everywhere, but for now we’re happy to introduce authors, new and established, to librarians, to teachers, to parents, to children who want to know them.
And so I really encourage people to follow up with We Need Diverse Books, to follow their fundraising campaign, to follow all of the programs that they’re doing because I think that what they have injected is energy and people’s voices, families who bother to take pictures of what they look like. And it was just such a beautiful expression of who’s here now, of what the American story is now and how books can help tell that story.
Stereotypes are a problem
Stereotypes are really a problem, especially when we’re talking about stereotypes of Latinos, right. So, I grew up where with Charro, she was a Spanish woman with blonde hair. She was very voluptuous and she’d come on TV, especially to the Merv Griffin show. I don’t know why I was so entranced by Merv Griffin show, but she’d come on going [makes noises]. And the stereotype was, of course, that she wasn’t very bright, and she had this vivacious body and she had just – she was very, very sexy.
And maybe it’s funny on TV, but girls sort of internalize that, right. What does it mean to be Latina? And for boys it’s not much easier, right. And you turn on the TV and who is the thug? Who is being arrested for the crime? It’s Jose, right, the Latino as perhaps impoverished, violent, in some way dangerous, in some way probably undocumented, a “drain” on society, all of these really negative stereotypes.
We have to take control of the story of Latinos because the fact is we’re also Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court. We’re also neurosurgeons and engineers. Sure, we are lawn care workers and maybe hotel workers. We are also teachers and bus drivers. We’re everything. We come in all shades. Some of us speak Spanish, some of us don’t. We come in every religious group.
We come from many countries. We’re not just one thing. And each one of those countries has its own holidays and tradition and vocabulary. That’s what makes it exciting and wonderful. But that’s not the story that’s being told. And so we have to take control of that. Even in books we have to make sure that the pictures and illustrations really portray how we all look, the sound of all of us, that we’re getting stories from all the many countries that make up what we think of in the United States as Latinos.
So, when I write, I like to write the families as we are, with jobs, with, you know, with professions, some in college, some not, the business owners. I like to put everybody in there, especially women in all of the various roles that we occupy now. I think it’s important because if we don’t, what we get is a really flat stereotype of Latinos.
The Pura Belpré Award
When I go to school sometimes, the first question I ask the audience is raise your hand if you know what the Pura Belpré Award is. I might get one hand. And then I say do you know who Pura Belpré was? Nothing. And I have used this year as the recipient of the Pura Belpré Award to help change that. Pura Belpré was a librarian.
And she worked in el barrio in Manhattan, and she worked with bilingual children. And she was one of the pioneers, the people who said, “We have children here whose families speak another language. We need literature for these families. We need literature that speaks the stories of these children and helps them and helps their parents stay connected.” And so the medal is in her honor.
So, when I go to schools now, I ask the librarian, “Can you please order the Pura Belpre poster that lists all 20 years’ worth of winners? Can you please encourage people not only Pura Belpré but the Las Americas Award, the Tomás Rivera award?” We want kids to be able to find on their own the stories that really have represented us the best.
And we want them to be really familiar with the people and the organizations who are advocating for them. That is a powerful thing. And it’s so easy to do to walk up to the library desk and say can you please print out for me or give me the link to the Pura Belpré winners or the Las Americas winners? And right there a family, a child, they have dozens of books to choose from.
The real Tía Isa
Oh, Tia Isa Wants a Car. So, I had a real Tia Isa, and she did buy the first family car. Tia Isa Wants a Car, the story, is about a little girl and her aunt conspiring to buy the first family car, but they have no money. So, they have to save and save and save. But it’s also a story about missing your family. It’s a story about sending money home to help your family.
But it’s mostly a story about an aunt who won’t take no for an answer. And that was certainly true about the real Tia Isa. So, one day she came home and she was such a nervous person. Anything could make her jump. She was just the – her nerves were always on point. She came home one day from work, and she said “Oye, voy a comprar un carro. I’m going to buy a car.”
And my grandmother said, “Are you crazy? Nobody’s going to get in a car with you. You’d be a terrible driver. You’re too nervous. Absolutamente no.” Right. And Isa said, “Take it easy.” That’s what she knew how to say in English. And in secret she went to a bilingual driving school, and she got driving lessons. And she came home with a Buick Wildcat not long after. I was shocked. But the first place she took us was to the beach. She wanted us I think just to know the beach.
Maybe it reminded her of Cuba. But the thing about that car that I remember, other than that it stalled at very inconvenient places, is that it took us to where the bus couldn’t take us. So, if we wanted to visit a friend, if we wanted to go to a park that wasn’t near a bus route, if we need to do our groceries, Tia Isa got in that car that had that big gigantic trunk, and she’d take us.
And I had forgotten all about that. But then when I was writing one day, my first picture book ever, here was this line and it came out, ”Tía Isa wants a car.” And I just started to think about it. And I started to think about how glorious it is that my aunt, who nobody thought could do it, did it anyway and that my nervous aunt was the one who sort of opened the doors for this first thing, this first way that we were setting roots in the United States.
And I so appreciate that. She still lives with my, by the way. She came to live with me a couple of years ago. And the first thing she did because she had had a stroke, she gave her car to my son, Alex, to take to college. But, you know, it’s fun to have her, and it’s fun to know that what this book taught me also was that everybody’s stories matters, right. Everybody’s story is important.
My aunt is no one spectacular. She was an ordinary tía who just decided that day that she was going to do something a little special. And I love that as a writer I could catch that and put it in a book so that maybe the kids sitting in the classrooms who are reading it look around their own family for their own tías and tíos and abuelas doing remarkable things right under their nose.
The story of Tía Isa's life
My aunt is such a surprising person. You know, the last couple of years have been hard. My mom passed away and Isa – and my mother was Isa’s caretaker. And Tia Isa never got married, and she doesn’t have any children. And she’s in her eighties. She’s getting old and she’s had a stroke. So, one day she says to me recently, “Ven, I have something for you, and she hands me these loose-leaf papers.”
And I said, “What’s this?” And she said, “The story of my life.” I said, “What?” She said, “It’s not much.” It was like five pages handwritten, which is a lot of writing for somebody who has had a stroke. But she said to me, “I’m getting old and, you know, I want you to have it so you can keep telling stories.” That was beautiful.
Ezra Jack Keats Award
I won the Ezra Jack Keats award for Tia Isa Wants a Car in 2012. And wow, what an experience. That is an award that’s given to a picture book author, a new author, who uses a person of color as the main character. And it’s based on the work of Ezra Jack Keats who wrote, of course, the wonderful book A Snowy Day. It seems ridiculous to think about this, but at that time it was one of the first books that featured a boy of color in a snowsuit as the main character and also as a child who lived in the city.
Prior to that kids were remarkably blonde and suburban. And so when Ezra Jack Keats passed away, my understanding is that he’s told his friends, “Listen, here’s some money. Do something good with it.” And one of the things that they’ve done with it is that they’ve established this award for an illustrator and for a writer who create a new work that celebrates people of color as the main character.
And Tia Isa Wants a Car got that award. It was wonderful. It was wonderful to me because it celebrated Tía Isa because it celebrated a strong Latina in the lead. It was meaningful to me because, again, for me, it felt like affirmation that you don’t have to be someone incredible. You don’t have to have gone to some fancy-schmancy college and traveled the world and, you know, write with a golden pen or something crazy. You can be a kid who grew up in Queens, New York and went to city university and be like simple things. All you need is eyes and the heart for it to capture the story.
Excerpt: Tía Isa Wants a Car
Hi. I’m Meg Medina, and I’m going to read from my picture book Tia Isa Wants a Car illustrated by Claudio Muñoz.
Tia Isa wants a car. She tells me after work when she still smells of lemon pies from the bakery. She’s turning the jump rope that’s tied to the fence, and I’m already up to 20. Pisicorre, she says, to take us to the beach. Really? The beach? I can’t catch my breath.
No one goes far from my block in the summer. But a beach has foamy water that reaches all the places I cannot go. Sí, really? Let’s save.
Advice for young writers
The advice I’d give to young writers is to persevere because you’re going to be told no a lot more than you’re going to be told yes. So, when I say persevere, I mean spend a lot of time on craft, on becoming the very best writer that you can. So, sign up for your school newspaper, your school magazine. Take creative writing classes. Take classes at college when you move in that direction to really learn the craft.
You can even just jump in with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and spend a month crazy writing as many words as you can. But the idea is to write and write and write, and you only become a strong writer by writing and studying the craft. So, that’s the biggest piece of advice I can give, especially early on. Later the business comes into play, finding an agent, finding an editor. But in the beginning it’s about getting the craft down and persevering once you start to sell the work, not being discouraged by no.
And especially for Latino kids who are writing, there’s such a need for your stories. There’s such a need for more Latino writers that I would say, “Capture your family. Look around. Look around your neighborhood. Ask yourself hard questions. Write about that. And write about it really well because editors are looking for you.”
One thing I’ve learned in my writing life is that the most ordinary moment can become magical. You have to just trust as the characters appear that they have a story they want to tell you. You have to listen and let them grow.
Joy of reading
I really feel strongly that we have to protect the joy of reading. Sometimes for very honorable reasons we bring a book into a classroom and we are going to do a very deep novel study. And what that’s going to include is that we will have the students highlight all the unfamiliar vocabulary. And we will ask them to write a journal entry after every single chapter. And then we will ask them to pretend that they’re having dinner with the character.
And then we will ask them on and on and on and on. So many assignments that we lose the joy of reading the book. So, what I say is that all of those things that are learned through a novel study are important, but they don’t have to all be done with every single book. We can take a deep breath and let children enjoy reading. Let children have space for recreational reading.
Don’t fill up every single second of their lives, especially I would say in high school, with required reading of the classics. Give them time to find the books that are naming the experience that they’re living now, the books that are being written by authors now. Give them a chance to develop a really varied palette for what they read.