One of the main duties of the Literary Initiatives Office is to promote the Library’s literary ambassadors nationally and help each find a way to engage Americans all across the country. After the Librarian of Congress chooses a U.S. Poet Laureate and a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Literary Initiatives goes into overdrive, talking to each ambassador about what kind of message they’d like to convey. We help ambassadors fashion a campaign that will reach audiences far from Washington, D.C., that’s accessible to all Americans and provides concrete actions to connecting with books, poetry and their creativity.
Meg Medina, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, worked with Literary Initiatives, to create a project called Cuéntame!: Let’s Talk Books. The idea at the heart of Cuéntame—which means “tell me,” or, literally, “story me” in Spanish—is that talking about books is something that children should feel totally at ease doing, just as they’d talk about any other topic with their friends, family and teachers. Too often in school, talking about books is reserved for “book reports” or presentations.
Medina comes from a Cuban-American family in which storytelling is the norm in everyday life. She is inspired by her upbringing to adapt the easy, casual flow of storytelling as a model for children, so that talking about books is fun and natural. And that is why Medina hosted an event here at the Library, “Office Hours with Meg Medina,” with families had won a lottery to get 20 minutes with the ambassador.
Medina was a full of energy and joy throughout the day. “So here you are!” Medina started out the day exclaiming to an eight-year-old boy who seemed a little awed being in a big fancy room. Medina put him right at ease. “Do you like reading? What are you reading?” she asked him. He’s a big fan of graphic novels; Medina recommended a graphic novel based on his interest in sports.
When Meg found out that he might want to grow up to be a writer, and when she learned about the boy’s mother’s Mozambique heritage, she shared her vision of his future as a story-teller: “You will have your mother’s stories from Mozambique and your father’s stories too,” Medina told him, “and then you will have your own stories too.”
The easy flow of their conversation showed the sly genius of Cuéntame!: Let’s Talk Books. In no time at all, Medina was talking to a child about the books he’s eventually going to write, instilling confidence in him by talking about her writing process and by asking him questions about his reading life. She approached him as a fellow reader, not a child.
Another visit was with a 10-year-old boy and his 7-year-old sister, who arrived with a bag of the books they’ve been reading lately. The fifth-grade boy, a major fan of Nathan Hale’s books, showed one of them to Medina, pointing out to the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature exactly how he would’ve illustrated the book’s cover differently if he were in charge. Medina agreed with his assessment and encouraged him to email Hale (she has it on authority that he likes to hear from his readers !).
Later in the day, a shy 8-year-kid opened each book they brought with them, giving the books a rigorous olfactory inspection (maybe each book imparted a different memory or feeling based on how it smelled). They said that they like the books they read because of the monsters that are in them. “It’s kind of fun to be a little scared,” Medina said. “And guess what?” the child confided in Medina, “I read a 435-page book!” No matter how shy the children first appeared to be, Meg put them to ease by doing silly things together, agreeing with their creative opinions and suggesting concrete next steps. Her respect for the children, no matter their age or relationship with books, is an important cornerstone of her ambassadorship that validates and encourages readers of all kinds.
Many families that met with Medina on this day already knew the importance of establishing a relationship between their children and books. But how does Medina adapt Cuéntame! for kids who may tell her they hate reading? “What happens is that I model the book conversation myself,” Medina said. She mentions an incredible book she read and makes it relatable to those children’s lives and what already interests them. “Just listening is a good thing,” she also pointed out. “Even if a child says ‘I hate reading,’ you have to be curious about that—why is that? And you need to do that in a way that’s really being interested in who they are, not asking in a judgmental way. Kids like to feel respected and listened to and heard.”
Medina was thrilled about the parade of families she met, mentioning the range of different kinds of families who appeared. “It was so affirming to see how eagerly the kids want to talk to you about what they’re reading,” she said. “There’s no artifice to it. I also loved seeing how readers are made and the parents who make room for reading. It was a great day.”
If you are interested in meeting Meg Medina, subscribe to our “News and Events” e-mail newsletter to find out about the next lottery for Family Office Hours with Meg Medina.