We meet in a sunny breakfast nook on another scorching summer day. The windows around us let in so much light we might as well be outside. Meg Medina’s eyes focus on the deck just outside the sliding glass door. “That’s where I’d be – if it weren’t so hot,” she says. The three-times published author and mother of three tells me about writing outside, about how a change of scenery encourages her process of “dreaming the book.” Meg is the novelist next door. Next door, in the West End that is, where she lives with husband, Javier, and their family (three kids, two mothers – Meg’s and Javier’s – and Meg’s aunt). Her melodic, passionate voice is both soothing and exciting. She could talk about play dough and you’d be transfixed.
From her first young adult novel, Milagros: Girl from Away, to her award winning picture book, Tía Isa Wants a Car, to her most recent YA, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, Meg has a propensity for writing strong spunky girls. It’s their resilience that she values and brings to life on the page. “I like characters that survive and persevere despite lots of obstacles,” Meg says. “That always ends up being a strong theme in anything that I’m writing. Mostly, it’s about strength.”
These heroines, their homes, and their adventures stem from Meg’s compelling Story… “That’s Story with a capital S,” she volunteers. And this acclaimed author, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, who “had one foot in each world” has quite a story to tell. It was my pleasure to pick Meg’s brain on becoming a writer, what inspires her writing, her newest book due next spring, and yes, there was even some talk about play dough.
RFM: You’ve been writing professionally For fifteen years. What brought you to this career path? How did you get started?
MEG: I think I was always a writer in one way or another. What I lacked was courage to do this kind of writing. One day when I was forty, I was working at a school and With my typical forethought and planning I said, I quit! Today is the day that I’m leaving and beginning to write a novel.
I told Javier and I remember he went pale. But he said to me words that I always live by and will forever be grateful for. He said, “Well, you know Meg, sometimes in life you have to jump out of the plane and tell yourself, My chute is gonna open. You’ve jumped. Now you need to pull the cord.” I really had jumped.
RFM: Milagros: Girl From Away was the first novel you wrote and you found an agent in six months? That’s amazing! How long did it take you to write Milagros? Can you tell us about your writing process?
MEG: I think that book took me about a year, maybe 18 months of writing pretty much every day for about three or four hours. I was very disciplined; it became my job. I think this is where a lot of writers fall through the cracks. They don’t have the discipline to show up to work every day. And you have to.
Showing up to work meant going to my desk in my family room. And at the time I had my desk facing outside, so I would just stare outside and start dreaming the book. I don’t outline at all. I only start with the vaguest idea of the character and the problem. That’s essential, really to any book. Who is the person who’s starting to speak to you? And in my case it’s usually a girl. What’s she about? What does she want? And why can’t she have it? And once that’s in place, then, I start to imagine the book the way you would a movie.
RFM: You grew up in Queens, where you met Javier, your husband of almost 30 years. How did you end up in Richmond?
MEG: Javier and I have known each other since childhood. Our mothers worked in the same factory and it was filled with all Cuban ladies who had come at the time of the revolution. When their children turned fourteen, we were old enough to work. We all went to the Social Security office, got our working papers, and went to this factory also. And that’s where we met, though we weren’t romantically linked until years later.
We went to Florida and all our kids were born there. We came to Richmond with my husband’s job [in 1998]. And it’s been a really nice place to raise my kids. What I liked about it? I got to raise my kids in a slower pace than I would have necessarily in other places – certainly in New York.
RFM: You’re a first-generation immigrant living in Richmond. Where do you find inspiration for the people and places in your very magical books?
MEG: Mostly from family Story. That’s Story with a capital S. My family, when they left Cuba, it was a very traumatic event. They left in the middle of a revolution and I think that Story is a really good coping mechanism in families, and it’s a healing mechanism. When my family left, they brought a lot of Story about life in Cuba.
It was a whole different world. Picture me – I’m in Queens, right, in a four-story walk-up. It’s sort of gray, it’s cold in winter, it’s quiet. People do not holler. And in my mother’s world of Cuba the stories are of chickens in the yard, men in linen suits, walking down to the river – a very, very different life. They [her parents] didn’t do very much by way of shielding me from what their experience had been, so I also got the full story on what it’s like to live through a revolution and hear people scream in a firing squad. So all of that became the backdrop for my life. When I would come home from school, the United States sort of ended and I went into Cuba: our food, our language, all of that.
So that is one place, and if I wrote only historical fiction, that would work. But I don’t, right? You would think that young adult writers are writing for children, and we are in a way, but mostly we’re writing for the people we were – when we were 10 and 11 and 12. So, the questions I had then, the frustrations I had then. I grab that and I grab Story from my family, and then there’s news everywhere that involves Latinos and current issues – most notably right now, immigration. And it just becomes a stew. It’s like when you’re making a soup – different things bubble to the top and you say, I’m going to write that.
RFM: You are Cuban-American and although the settings of your books are fictional, your books are rich with Latin culture. Why is it important to you that you share this with young adults – from all cultures?
MEG: I hope the books appeal to every body. It’s really just how I self-identify. When I think of myself, I think of myself as Latina and American. I like to write and identify that way, because, it’s still not easy to find books where your life is depicted on the pages.
When you’re a child, what books can do – aside from fill your time so beautifully – is help you make sense of the world. The big world, but your own world, too, the one you’re living in with your family. I think it’s really essential that we present really respectful, accurate examples of who we are: all the different people who make up what we call family.
RFM: Your next book comes out in march 2013. What do we have to look forward to there?
MEG: The book deals with bullying. Originally, it was called, Finding Yaqui del Gado and Candlewick has asked me to change the title and after much conversation I have agreed with them. The book is titled the first line of the book, which is, Yaqui del Gado Wants To Kick Your Ass. When they first said that to me I said, “Oh! Absolutely not! Are you crazy? How’s a librarian going to introduce me?”
I wrote this novel based on a situation that happened to me in eighth grade and my editor, who I adore and really trust, sat down with me and said, “So, all these years later, you remember that? And why is that?” The truth is that it was a horrible thing to say and it was a scary, scary time. And this is what kids say to each other when they’re going to bully each other. That and far worse. And as usual, I’ve written the book for young women in a really tight spot and I want it to open up a conversation about the choices that Piddy [the main character] has to make to regain her footing and save herself from this person who has threatened her and who eventually does, in fact, beat her up.
RFM: We look forward to reading it! There are a lot of parents who are reading to their children and think, there’s a book in me. What would you tell that parent?
MEG: I’m a strong believer that really there’s a story in everybody. Whether it’s a published story or not is a whole other matter. The practice of capturing something, the practice of remaining childlike and whimsical, is a good thing. You know, do you ever walk by a tub of play dough or crack one open and that smell hits you? [I laugh, because I know what she’s talking about.] Right? You just love it. You instantly remember that little squeezy thing that always got stuck, and all the things you made, the things we did as kids. There’s something beautiful about that moment when we can still do that. And I think the same thing’s true about writing books for kids or writing picture books for kids.
So try it! I say, why not? Crack open the play dough, crack open your computer file and try it out. There’s no downside to play; there’s no downside to reading, there’s no downside to writing.
In fact, many months ago, I found the first book that I wrote with my son, Alex. It was a cardboard cover and just loose-leaf paper and it was six pages long and it was wonderful. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s a book. That’s the story that was in him when he was five. And there’s no reason not to put the story out that you want to tell when you’re thirteen, when you’re 45, when you’re 80. That’s the Story that’s in there; tell it. Story is a powerful thing, such a universal inclination among people. And we cut ourselves off from it. It would be nice to put it all back.
Meet Author Meg Medina
Born: Alexandria, Virginia
Raised in: Flushing, Queens, New York
Currently lives in: Henrico County
Married to: Javier Menéndez
Kids: Cristina Menéndez, 21; Sandra Menéndez, 19; Alex Menéndez, 17
When she’s not writing: I read incessantly; I couldn’t live without that hobby. I love to exercise, too. And I love, love, love good movies – all types from Pixar’s latest blockbuster to obscure films out of China.
Meg’s Shining Moment
Meg has received numerous awards for her contributions to children’s literature. Milagros: Girl from Away was nominated for the American Library Association’s 2009 Best Books for Young Adults, while Tía Isa Wants a Car has been a Junior Library Guild Selection, among others. But the award closest to Meg’s heart is one of her most recent honors: the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award for Tía Isa Wants a Car.
This award recognizes children’s books “that portray the universal qualities of childhood, a strong and supportive family, and the multicultural nature of our world,” according to the EJK website. Tía Isa does just that. Illustrated by Claudio Muñoz, this picture book tells the story of a woman’s dream to own a car, and her niece, who pitches in to make that dream come true.
It’s Ezra Jack Keats, author of The Snowy Day and the award’s namesake, who makes this award so important to Meg. “He used children of color as the main characters in these picture books, really for the first time,” says Meg. “There’s a certain power in that: in seeing the food that you eat on the pages of a book, seeing a healthy family. What we find – which is a no-brainer, of course-is that we’re so much alike. Much more alike than we are different, but there’s nothing wrong in celebrating the differences, too. They’re beautiful differences.”
Meg addressed an audience of librarians and book lovers at the award ceremony. “I got to tell them about my aunt – there’s a real Tía Isa, of course, who bought the family car. I got to thank them for the opportunity to honor her life in this way.”