Interview with Meg Medina, National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature

Meg Medina is a force. Already a renowned Cuban-American author who writes for every age of reader in the children’s book genre, in January 2023, Medina was also named the eighth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature under the Library of Congress. She opened up about her writing process, biggest challenges, and provided sage advice during an interview with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

September 29, 2023


How did you get into writing?

MM: I tried to be everything else but a writer. I just didn't know anybody in my life who was one. My family was very practical. They wanted me to have a job with health insurance or something that they could understand. So they could understand things like teaching or a job at the phone company. But if you said to them "artist, writer, dancer," anything like that – it was scary, I think. They were people who had to struggle to pay rent, to have health insurance, and all of those things.

So I became a writer fairly late in life (by today's standards). I was 40 before I started writing for children. By that time, I had been a teacher for 10 years. I had sold furniture. I had been a development writer; I wrote grants. I was a freelance journalist. I did all the things trying to find it!

And I was good at those things. I enjoyed teaching a lot. I loved my students. It was hard for me to leave them when it was time, and I was having children. But, more importantly, I wanted to start writing.

At 40, I took stock in a very dramatic way one day at my job. I was literally in a very small closet that had been converted into my office. I was raising money for a school for kids with disabilities where my oldest daughter attended. It was a great job with great purpose, and I was having success. But I was not fulfilled. And so I just quit. I said, "I'm gonna write a novel" and that's how I did it.

Now do I recommend that people do this? No!

I had the benefit of being in a marriage with a person who said, "okay, take a year. Let's see if you can do it." So I didn't have to go out there alone with no means of paying my way or anything like that. But that experience confirmed for me that if it is something you really want to do in your heart – if you are meant to write – you can try lots of other careers but that that feeling of completion, of being centered, of being all parts of you won’t happen until you become a writer.

So I am so grateful that it did work out for me because it was going to be a very long, hard road if I had to do other things.

Do you think you would have done another creative career if it wasn't writing?

MM: Nature is what it is, so I am not a dancer. But I love it more than you can imagine! In my fantasy, I would have loved to have been a dancer.

I also think I did all my careers creatively. When I was a teacher, I was really hands-on. I had one of those noisy, messy rooms with kids and projects all over the place. Just because that was my nature. I like energy. I like pushing boundaries. I like questioning things. I like to laugh. I like to invent. And I love young people so that always always ended up in the mix of my life. So yeah, I probably would have done something else creative.

How do you choose the topics that you focus on in your work? Do you think “this is what a child needs to hear right now?” Or “this is what I would have loved to hear as a child?”

MM: I think the answer is always different for different writers! People come at this so differently. I come at it from a notion called clave, which in Cuban music is the underlying beat. It is a true rhythm. It doesn't change no matter how many instruments and voices you put on it. That simple beat always stays true.

So my clave as a writer has always been “girls growing up” and “culture” and “family” – where do those things intersect? I mind that question over and over again from different age points, from different experiences, or from different time periods. But I'm always wrestling with that intersection.

Some people feel the danger is: do you start to repeat yourself? Do you tell the same story? I think that's where differentiating comes into play. How do we see the world at different ages? When we're writing from those different sets of eyes and for different audiences, what’s new?

As I continue to get older as an author, I’m thinking about maturity and changes. You’re then making sense of all the things that happened to you. You have new questions that you didn't have even five years ago.

The books that I wrote in 2008 are different from the books that I'm writing in 2023. And that's because the questions I have about being a human being, about being a kid, and about growing up are always evolving.

What do you find yourself focusing on now? What types of topics are at the forefront of your mind?

MM: I just finished a manuscript that I'm working on with my editor that we're both excited about. I started it in 2010. It looks a lot at death and life. All the characters are dead but in their death they’re thinking about who they were when they were alive, and what it means to be alive. And why it matters. It's a fantasy and an adventure that's very different from what I typically write (which is contemporary realism).

The 'Merci Suárez' series also deals with the death of her grandfather. So when I ask myself "why this topic right now?" Well, one thing that’s happened since 2013: I lost my mom. I lost my aunt. I lost the elders in my family. That situation sort of propelled me to be the elder in the family now. I'm the keeper of our cultural heritage and things like that. So I think writers are never far from what they're actually experiencing.

Now, I'm not writing about my mother's death for kids. I'm writing about the things that I'm wondering about, and I'm thinking about what that means to someone who is 12 or 11. How might they see and experience those things? Kids are witnesses to everything. They're shielded from nothing in this world. I'm doing an exploration of what I'm wondering about at the same time that I'm thinking about them right now.

I'm also just trying to experiment and not write what I know I already can write. I want to try new things and scare myself. Now, I say that and then, when I'm doing it, I'm like, "what did I do? Why didn't I just stay in my lane and do the thing that I know how to do!?" But there is an artistic beauty to putting yourself out there on the tightrope and seeing what you can do. Shake yourself up and rattle yourself a little bit. I hope that's what I'm doing. Ultimately, the readers will tell me if it works or not.

What has been one of your more challenging books?

MM: The book was 'The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.' In my mind, I also call it 'The Book That Nearly Killed Meg Medina' because I had to learn so much about writing in that book!

I'm very fortunate that many of my books have earned back their advances. This one has not yet. It's been out for a long time. It may never! And I had to write that book multiple times. My agent didn't like it. I gave it to my editor. She didn't bid on it. She said, "let's work on it for a while on spec." I had to wrestle that sucker to the ground and unpack writing. Who is a main character and who is not a main character? It was really challenging to write.

When I finished it, I loved that book. I still love that story. The people who love that story really love it, which is really interesting. Those people who connect with it really love it. They like that suspended-in-time, pale feeling.

But I love it the most because I had to really sit with a lot of discomfort as a writer. I had to sit for long periods of time with a sense of failure and missing the mark. I had to sit with worry. How was it gonna be received? And it went out into the world and it was received as it was received.

I continued to write other books and my career continued to unfold. So it just taught me a lot about the process of writing. There's never a guarantee that the project you're working on is going to go well or poorly. All you can do is come to the page as honestly as you can, and work as hard as you can on it, and then release it. Then continue to make work. So I love the book and it was a hard book to write.

A lot of people think there’s smooth sailing as soon as you’re finished with one book. So thank you for sharing the bumps in the road!

MM: Well, yes, we have a lot of authors that seem to come out of the gate and shoot into the stratosphere. Their book is a movie! They have huge sales! They're best sellers! Everybody loves them! That was not how my career unfolded. My first novel is not even in print. It came out. It had a couple of kind reviews, then no sales. There was not a lot of support, and then it died, and away it went.

Every novel I honed my skills a little bit more. For me, it was the picture book 'Tía Isa Wants a Ca'r because it won the Ezra Jack Keats Award. That put my work in the eyeline of librarians and teachers. You cannot possibly overstate the importance of librarians and teachers in a children's book author's career.

So that was my lucky break! I wrote this little picture book, ironically, during a spell when I was so frustrated with 'The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind' that I couldn't even bring myself to the computer! I sat down. I said, I need to just palette cleanse and write this other thing. And I wrote 'Tía Isa Wants a Car.' That was the one that worked.

I feel like we've gotten so used to the notion of instantaneous success (and followers) that we've forgotten: sometimes it just takes a while to cook the soup.

What has been the most rewarding part of being the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature so far? How did you feel whenever it happened? And what are you hoping comes of it? 

MM: The feeling when it first happened was one of immense honor. Because it just feels so large! To serve the nation's children is not a small thing.

It also feels like, "oh, my goodness! People do know my work. They do know who I am." As a writer, you’re just never really convinced. At least, I'm not. I'm still that kind of writer who could have an event at a bookstore tomorrow and still have very few people. That still happens; that doesn't go away.

But I had that immense sense of honor. And then the responsibility started to sink in. You're responsible for all the children. Our country's really varied – lots of opinions on lots of things – and you have to be in a mental space where you can encourage reading and encourage dialogue and encourage literacy to the best of your ability. And that's a tall order right now, sometimes.

But I have an amazing press team at the Library of Congress. They are so supportive and on top of everything. They partner with Every Child A Reader, meet with my publisher, and manage all the travel and the applications needed to get me to each location. It’s a lot but it feels like I'm in good, competent, loving hands. So I appreciate that.

The best part is, of course, when you're out in the field, you’re with kids and their families. There are just so many unforgettable exchanges that happen that you are not prepared for! I had a kid in Newburgh, New York who was just so amazing and so in love with books. He was able to tell me why he loved them and convince me to read all the things he told me to read! I was really impressed and just very grateful for him.

At the National Book Festival recently, I had a kid who thanked me for the 'Merci Suárez' series. A young man in front of a room of hundreds of people basically said, I cried at the end of that book. There was an open-heartedness about him that was so genuine and very touching.

To be able to see kids, especially Latino families out there. To be an example for them of what a literary life looks like – I don't think I'm ever going to forget this experience. I'm so grateful for it. It's flying by and I'm gonna be very sad when it's over! I'll be tired but very, very sad when it's done.

What's some advice you'd give to someone at the beginning or the middle of their children's book journey?

MM: If they're members of SCBWI, they already know: you need to find your community of fellow creatives. Having a career in the creative arts can be really lonely against the larger backdrop. Sometimes you could be lonely in your own family. You married into really practical people with other kinds of jobs who don't understand that you're thinking about dragons and things like that? You need to spend some time creating some space for yourself so that you have a place where you can discuss these things.

The word I would say is: perseverance. You have to persevere on improving your craft more than your social platform. Your craft is essential. The social media platforms that will help you get the word out will come, and you will evolve in that realm. But you really need the writing to be solid. That comes from being able to absorb suggestions and edits, and figuring out which of them to use.

This is a business that can be really hard on you, on your self-esteem, on your sense of self worth, on your beliefs, and your creative voice. So fostering your community and coming to the page open-hearted every day is what I'd most advise. I have to remind myself to do these things every day.

It's hard. It's hard for folks when they've had a string of “non-starters” or “failures,” which aren't really failures but feel like that as they're happening. They're just teaching moments, if you can keep them in your mind that way. They're moments that you need to come back and look at what it says about what's happening on the page.

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