Meg Medina: a former teacher, a Milk Dud aficionado, an award-winning writer, a talker of books. The new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is an initiative of the Library of Congress in partnership with Every Child a Reader. It is also a title that comes with prestige and a platform to spread a message of love for books and reading. Each Ambassador adds their own flavor to this goal, and Meg Medina, the eighth Ambassador, is planning a unique community-oriented approach to her upcoming 2-year term, encapsulated by her platform “Cuéntame: Let’s Talk Books.” A few days before her Inauguration as the next Ambassador (today, January 24, 2023!), we chatted about what brought her to this position, what drives her passion as a literacy advocate, and what she sees on the horizon. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Thank you to Literary Initiatives intern Natalie Miller for helping transcribe the interview.
Sasha Dowdy: I’d love to help our readers get to know you. Can you tell us some fun facts that everyone should know?
Meg Medina: Well, everyone should know that I write for kids of all ages. I think that I write from the very youngest all the way to teenagers and occasionally for adults. So for me, the thing is story, I pick the age group and the format that matches the story that’s in my heart that I want to tell at that time.
I think folks should know that I came to writing through stories in my family. I had very talkative Cuban aunts and grandmothers and mother, and they did a lot of talking and storytelling in the house. And that just developed my ear for story and for drama and for dramatic pause and for heated moments. And that all translated into my work. I write often about kids and culture and growing up and where those three things mash together, sometimes beautifully, sometimes painfully.
I think people should know that I used to be a teacher. I was a teacher for ten years in public schools in New York and in Florida.
And I think people should know that I love Milk Duds, but do not tell my dentist because I have been told I’m not allowed to eat them anymore.
SD: Yeah, my dentist is not happy with my chocolate habits either, but we have to have joy.
MM: That’s what I think.
SD: Can you tell us how first you wanted to become a teacher, and describe your transition from teacher to award-winning author?
MM: So this is a really strange little story. I graduated college and I went to work in publishing, of all things. And I worked at Simon & Schuster where I was the worst editorial assistant ever, right?…I made very little money and I was just not good at it and not happy there. And at the time, New York City was having a big teaching shortage. I did not want to be a teacher. I didn’t imagine that for myself because my mother had been a teacher and my tía had been a teacher and my abuelo had been a teacher and my mother would say things to me like “it’s a wonderful career for a woman” and all of these sexist sort of things about teaching. And I was determined that I was not going to be a teacher. But I needed money, I needed a job. And so I said, I’m going to do this for a little while until I figure out what I really want to do. And so they gave me the keys.
The board of education at the time gave me the keys to a classroom with 36 children in Queens. Almost all of my students were of Dominican descent and very, very recently arrived. And when I say very recently arrived, I mean like within days or weeks of arrival they were in my classroom. And when I think back on that experience, first of all, what did I know about teaching?
Nothing. And so boy, was that trial by fire. It was.
A steep, steep learning curve for me about managing a classroom and connecting with kids….I had no idea what a lesson plan was. Thank goodness I had all these people in my life who were teachers. But what I didn’t count on and what happened almost immediately, is that I fell in love with the children, with their families, who seemed so familiar to my family. I used to love to walk their neighborhoods and meet their mamís and papí’s, and I knew I could talk with the families. And they sort of trusted me in a way, as young and inexperienced as I was. And what I most remember, aside from all the missteps, is how much the last day of school I cried when they were leaving me, because I didn’t feel like I could trust [whoever] they were going to have next year. Were they going to love them as much as I love them? And that was really like a turning point for me because I stayed in teaching and for true love reasons, I loved the process of being with little kids and thinking about things. And then I discovered children’s books again.
SD: Your stories have been incredible from the start, and you’ve been growing your audience. And now you get to be an Ambassador for these stories for two years. That’s pretty cool.
MM: Unbelievable. Yeah. I sometimes wonder if my mother is watching from somewhere. My elders, all of my tías and abuelas, they’re gone now. And when they came to this country, they were frightened and they were starting brand-new and they came feeling broken and wanting so much for good things to happen on down the line.…I hope that this made all that they went through worth it in some small way.
SD: I’m really excited to see how you will help families connect over books because that was part of my love for books. That I got to tell my dad the plot of the book from beginning to end in a rambling kid way. And then when he looked away for even a microsecond I’d hold his head to make him pay attention.
MM: [An acquaintance recently] said that she’d finished a book and she was talking to her teenager about it and she said “I know my teenager’s never going to read this book. So I don’t know why I felt the need tell him what I was reading” and I said “Because it’s about passion, because what you’re really saying is ‘This is what really made me happy or frightened me or scared me or made me feel something.’” And that’s the thing that we’re sharing, right? To be able to say “This reminds me of your abuela.” or “did I ever tell you about the time that I stole Twinkies out of the Hostess truck?” You know, all of that is possible just by sharing a story. Just by sharing books and the things that we love about it.
SD: You were saying that talking about books helps us tell each other who we are. That is part of your platform, right?
MM: “Cuéntame! Let’s talk books.” So “cuéntame” is a phrase we use when you’re sitting down with a friend you haven’t seen in a while and you say “Bueno, cuentame, so tell me what’s happening.” If you are translating it directly, you would say, “Story me.” I love that idea, because that is what I’m asking, ‘Story me up,’ tell me the books that you love, I’m going to tell you some of the books that I love. Let’s talk about lives, family stories, all of it.” It seems like the perfect catch phrase to capture the spirit of it, the invitation of it into relationship and conversation around books.
SD: Your platform makes it so accessible and possible for kids to think “I have a story and I can share it.”
MM: Oh, they can’t stop sharing. Just walk into a middle school lunchroom. The volume is somewhere up here because they cannot stop telling each other stories of what happened in third period, of what so and so did, of what their silly brother did. They’re just oozing. It’s connecting that back into “This is the story that you’re telling” and connecting back to reading, connecting it back to stories that they read and their actual experiences, to the experiences that they’re encountering on the page.
SD: I would love to hear from the perspective of these kids. If you were Meg the teen, and you learned about a person like you becoming the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, what would you hope that person does for you?
MM: If this is Meg the teenager talking to you: I would hope she is not boring. I would hope she is not going to talk to me about reading as though it is broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Nothing against broccoli or Brussels sprouts, but that she’s not going to talk to me about all the detrimental and horrible things that will happen in my life if I am not a reader. Like, that’s not it. I’d want her to see me. And I’d want her to talk about books that make sense to me and not something that I’m not interested in. I would want her to have enough sense to think about what would really connect with me.
SD: You are committed now to work with children and helping them tell their stories and connect through books. Is there one promise you can make to the young kids that you will be working with during your term?
MM: I’m listening, I’m listening. I’m listening to what their passions are, to what interests them, and I’m really interested in being in conversation with them. I’m part of their reading family; that feels really exciting.
Watch Meg Medina’s inauguration here.