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National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Meg Medina reading from her works in the recording lab for the Library of Congress’ PALABRA Archive on March 2023. (Anya Creightney/Library of Congress)

Meg and Maria: How the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature connected with Sonia Manzano

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This is a post by National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Meg Medina, written in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month. The piece is also part of a series of blogposts that are being published in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the PALABRA Archive, a collection of poets and writers from Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal, and regions with Hispanic/Latino/Latinx or Portuguese heritage reading from their works.

I’ve been enjoying my daily walks even more than usual these days. That’s because I’ve been listening to selections from the PALABRA Archive.

You might imagine that as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, I’ve been combing the audio collection with a particular eye to those authors who used their talents to create works for young people—and you would be right! The sad truth is that literature for the young is often overlooked for its value. It can be seen as easily achieved or as a place holder for complex, “real” reading later in life.  But that opinion ignores the origin of a person’s literary life. It’s rare when an avid adult reader cannot name their favorite book from childhood. Their connection to books and story began there, nursed on picture books, chapter books and the rest.

Rosita’s Abuela; #4415 – Season 43B/44; Sesame Street Production; photographed: October 15, 2012. Photo credit: Richard Termine

So, it has been with delight that I found Sonia Manzano listed among the contributors, reading from her 2012 historical fiction middle grade novel, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano about the Young Lords, also known as the Young Lords Organization or Young Lords Party, and social justice in New York’s Spanish Harlem during the late 1960s. Manzano has authored several books for young people, but she is best known, of course, as the actor who played “Maria” on Sesame Street for over 40 years.

I was already getting on the older side of the Sesame Street demographic when Manzano first introduced the character. I knew all my letters and numbers. I could already tell you “which of those things just wasn’t the same.”

But Maria kept me watching.  I saw her go toe-to-toe with Oscar the Grouch. I was thrilled that she could fix toasters, and I blushed when she fell in love with Luis (though we all saw it coming!) But mostly, I loved that she represented Latino families like mine. And while I couldn’t have put my finger on it then, she provided a way for me to imagine myself included in the idyllic world of Sesame Street. Maria made me feel stronger and surer of myself, my language, and my culture.

It was a special joy, then, years later when Sonia Manzano wrote her first YA novel, “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano.” The beauty of that novel lies in more than just the voice of a New York born-and-bred Puerto Rican teen, which is spot on. Manzano expertly captures that maddening mix of wisdom and snark that teens love, especially whenever they cast their critical eyes on immigrant parents, as I did.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano” is essential reading because it also expands what most kids know about our country’s history. It mines the intersection of Puerto Rican migration and US mainland politics to create the true, full-bodied American history that children deserve to know.  Children have always been witnesses to everything, and Manzano centers them and their impressions as Evelyn grapples with what it means to be part of a community.

For me, Manzano’s interview and reading on the Library of Congress’ PALABRA Archive is a perfect resource to point to as I tour schools and communities as Ambassador.  It’s a recording that demystifies literature and makes it accessible to kids and their families, regardless of their cultural background. It elevates the immigrant experience in the U.S. to art and makes the young listener want to discover more.

It’s the kind of heartfelt recording that creates readers.

Meg Medina is the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

Other authors of works for young people in the archive that she has enjoyed are:

Julia Álvarez, Ruth Behar, Marjorie Agosín, Jorge Argueta, Esmeralda Santiago, and Gabriela Mistral. Medina also recorded for the PALABRA Archive earlier this year (her session will become available for online streaming this fall).

The PALABRA Archive, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works. With recorded authors from all over Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, the Caribbean, and other regions with Hispanic and Portuguese heritage populations, this archive has to date close to 850 recordings, a portion of which are available for online streaming. The majority of the recordings from this collection are in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, but the archive also includes sessions in Catalan, Basque, French, Dutch, Creole, and Indigenous languages like Náhuatl, Zapotec, Quechua and Aymara. The majority of the sessions for the Archive are recorded in the Library of Congress’ Recording Laboratory, although a good portion are captured abroad and in other venues around the U.S. and Washington, DC.

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