In her youth – as a first-generation American of Cuban descent – Meg Medina didn't see herself as an author. She didn't even see anyone like her in a book.
"When your experience isn't represented in the pages at all, there's a piece of you that sort of turns it off," she said. "Why was I invisible? Why not in these pages? And so some of that fury fuels my work."
Medina, long acclaimed for her positive and nuanced portrayals of Latino children and families, earned her greatest accolade in 2019. The Henrico County author was awarded the 2019 Newbery Medal – the highest honor in American literature for children – for her book "Merci Suárez Changes Gears," about a strong-willed sixth-grader and her struggles at home and school.
Medina is the first Latina author to win the Newbery, and the entire experience has been "humbling and beautiful,” she said. And life-changing.
The Newbery – its gold sticker now graces the cover of "Merci" – places the book among the most influential in children’s literature, and it elevates Medina's platform and reach. But beyond the countless speaking engagements, international travel and, yes, lasting financial benefits of a best-seller with Newbery credentials, the prize has rewarded the risk that Medina took – at age 40 – of transitioning her career to writing.
“Maybe my own sense of confidence, which is always shaky and always has been,” Medina said of one internal benefit. “When you win something and your peers acknowledge it – in those moments when you feel like you can’t do something or you’re not a good enough person to do something – it helps shore up your courage. It helps you shore up nerve to be able to try things and say things and do things that you might not have had the confidence in yourself to do before.”
That’s a modest self-assessment for someone who is viewed by friend and fellow author Gigi Amateau as one of the greats in Richmond writing history.
“When I think of Richmond's most notable literary women, Ellen Glasgow and Paule Marshall come to mind, and so does Meg Medina – women whose works reflect literary excellence, whose voices call for social justice, whose stories inspire us to do better,” said Amateau, who with Medina in 2011 launched Girls of Summer, a community summer reading program aimed at celebrating and developing strong girls.
Medina arrived in Richmond in 1998, admittedly apprehensive about how her family would fit in.
"My kids were the only Latino kids in their elementary school, and that came at a cost, I think, in terms of their developing their own sense of cultural awareness," she said.
But as the Richmond region diversified and evolved, so did Medina, and this is where her career took off. She began her first book after the youngest of her three children had gone off to school. Among other roles, she worked as a grant writer and freelance feature writer, but she found her voice in writing for younger readers through picture books, middle-grade books, short stories and young adult fiction.
Medina's books include two titles – “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass” and "Mango, Abuela, and Me" – that received Pura Belpré Awards for their portrayals of Latino culture and experiences. Her stories touch on family dynamics and sensitive topics such as bullying, and they are fueled by her life experience.
Medina, whose parents emigrated from Cuba in the early 1960s before they separated, was born in Alexandria but spent her childhood in Queens, N.Y. She writes from the vantage point of someone who grew up modestly in a single-parent household – her mother worked in a factory – and learned important lessons about family that resonate in her work.
She writes intentionally and unmistakably from the perspective of her culture. "I make sure that I put all kinds of kids in the pages, but certainly the ones in the driver's seat, the engine of the story, is a Latino family – usually a girl," Medina said.
In light of the Newbery, she acknowledges feeling a particular responsibility – she uses the term "obligation" – to “Latino families to connect with them, to create a sense of pride." That's especially true now, she said in her Newbery acceptance speech in June, considering the national conversation about immigration and the often “disparaging characterizations of Latinx people.”
Medina takes that role seriously, said Tanya Gonzalez, executive director of the Sacred Heart Center in South Richmond, a nonprofit that serves as a hub for the local Latino community through programs and services for adults and children.
“She’s been a friend and a supporter of the center for a while, and when she won the [Newbery], she let me know that whatever she could do to help the center ... she was willing to do,” Gonzalez said.
As part of that commitment, Medina was the featured speaker this fall at the center’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, delivering talks in English and Spanish – both on the same evening – to different audiences.
“For young girls in particular to see someone like her, to hear her story and ... to be able to dream of the possibilities for themselves is really important,” Gonzalez said.
As Medina noted: "I feel so urgently that I don't want another generation of kids to feel that they have to succeed in spite of who they actually are."
And though she centers her stories on Latino protagonists, the message in her work is largely about growing up – and family.
"And that's everybody's story," Medina said. "That's really the magic – when you can tell a story that resonates across everyone's experience because it's so true about being human."
For Barbara Haas, librarian at Richmond’s Boushall Middle School, the biggest impact Medina has made in her work and life was "Yaqui," the 2013 novel in which a Latina teen is targeted by a bully at her new school.
“For the past six years, I have facilitated an eighth-grade girls book group where I read 'Yaqui' out loud to them," Haas said. "The bonds that I have made with the girls who have participated are priceless. 'Yaqui' is a story that I feel all educators, women, human beings should read. Meg's writing and her 'every girl'-ness make her so approachable, likable and so relevant.”
Relevance is what has connected Medina to her audiences of all ages and ethnicities – and to her community. Amateau noted that a former professor of hers "once wrote that Richmond has a giant heart that needs awakening.
"Meg – her writing, her voice, her own giant heart – plays a part in that awakening.”
IN HER WORDS: MEG MEDINA
author and 2019 Newbery Medalist
Hometown: Flushing, Queens, N.Y. (born in Northern Virginia)
Family: husband Javier, three children
Bicycles seem to have imbued your life and work, right?
Bikes have always been part of my life. They have special meaning to all kids, I think. It’s the first vehicle we have to master, usually around scrapes and bruises until we’re proficient. More important, it’s the first vehicle that takes us away from our parents, the first vehicle where we can steer our own path in life. It made sense to me to use a bike as a central symbol for growing up.
In my own life, bikes were always tied to family and love somehow. Maybe that, too, is why it became such a big part of "Merci Suárez Changes Gears."
My very first bike was a gift from my father – absentee by then – and it was the first contact between us that I can remember. Later, I watched my mom sacrifice and save to buy me my heart’s desire when I was 10: a banana-seat three-speed that she could only afford by working through her vacation week and using the extra money to purchase it.
My husband bought me a fabulously sleek bike early in our marriage, a sort of 10-speed sexy thing. And, of course, the bike I still own is the one I used when my children were very small. I needed a vehicle to clear my head and think about how to survive the onslaught that new parenting can be, all the moments that it offers us of joy and terror.
I’m a lousy cyclist, and I give hills a side-eye, but I do love to climb on a bike and meander.
Tell us about taking the plunge – at age 40 – to become a children’s book author.
Some people say that’s late in life, and maybe it is. The truth is that I tried very hard to do other things in life besides writing, mostly because I lacked the courage to try.
I had no idea how to create a writer’s life. I had no example of someone in my family making their way in the arts. In fact, my mother’s dream job for me was always at the phone company, where she said I would always have good benefits. To write felt like a guilty indulgence.
Luckily, my inner author was stubborn. I simply never felt completely happy doing those other jobs, regardless of whether I did them well.
Interestingly, all my former jobs pointed me in the direction of writing for children. Editorial assistant. English and creative writing teacher. Freelance journalist. Marketing and development professional. All of those experiences weren’t exactly right, but collectively they built a series of skills that made it possible for me to eventually try my hand at my dream. Everything I learned doing the wrong jobs helped me make a path toward the right one.
These days I work full time as an author – something I never thought would be possible. I have a grueling travel schedule and deadlines that would scare most rational people. Still, I never feel as though I am working a job. Writing satisfies me and saves me and makes me want to wake up in the morning.
What are your thoughts about the representation of Latinx girls today?
We are in such difficult times with regard to our views about immigrants, particularly those from Hispanic and Latino backgrounds. My biggest worry about Latinx girls has to do with how we shape their self-image.
Typically, they are drawn as violent, not very book-smart, and are often overly sexualized in media. It’s a reductive view – and one that’s pervasive and, if we’re not careful, very damaging. It creates a single distorted story about Latinx women that we internalize. I write in opposition to that view, and I live in opposition to those expectations.
Also, I’m happy to report that a growing number of very talented Latinx authors are coming into children’s book publishing now with strong work that offers alternatives, too.
Share a moment that is meaningful to you about Richmond.
There are just so many ways that this city has surprised and charmed me over the years. Most of it has to do with the spirit of risk-taking among the writers and artists.
One of my favorite memories is doing a reading of my young adult novel "Burn Baby Burn" at the Village Exxon station on Three Chopt Road. Hope Whitby is a poet who happens to manage that service station. She also runs a book club called Books in the Bay on the weekends when the garage is closed. Flip open the door, mind your head around the tools, and bingo. It’s a genius idea, if you ask me.
But there have been others. I’ve been part of RVA Lit Crawl, launched by writers dedicated to making the written word accessible and enjoyable to anyone willing to walk a few blocks and sit down to listen. The James River Writers Conference consistently draws nationally recognized talent to share their work and wisdom. I’ve worked with a team of authors and librarians on Girls of Summer, a summer reading program for girls, which ran for nine years at the Richmond Public Library.
Really, there are loads of other examples of innovation here. I think Richmond is small enough and quirky enough that you can bring forward an idea and see what happens with it. Risk-taking is at the heart of creativity, and Richmond has been a welcoming place to take those kinds of artistic risks. It’s a wonderful place to be a writer.