Representation matters, especially representation in literature and in books that speak to a new generation of Latinas searching for purpose and longing to be understood.
Historically, the American publishing industry has been overwhelmingly white. A 2019 study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that only five percent of books published for young readers are by or about Latine people. However, as of 2021, Latinos are the largest ethnic minority population in the U.S., with over 62 million Hispanics accounting for more than 50 percent of the population growth over the last decade.
This is why Latina wordsmiths with diverse backgrounds, diverse voices, and unique stories to tell are needed more than ever.
Enter Meg Medina.
Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban-American author who writes picture books and middle-grade and young adult fiction.
She won a Newbery Medal and was awarded the New York Times Notable Children’s Book of the Year for her middle-grade novel “Merci Suárez Changes Gears.”
In this sequel, “Merci Suarez Can’t Dance,” Meg Medina is re-introducing readers to the Suarez family as Merci deals with new coming-of-age struggles and life lessons.
“I’m so excited to bring my readers into the world of the Suárez family and Seaward Pines once again…New friends, new teachers, and new self-doubts. It’s been a thrill to write about all the zany things that the seventh grade can throw at a person,” said Meg.
In addition to the Merci Suarez series, Medina also writes picture books. Her most recent picture book, “Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away,” received rave reviews.
Over the years, Medina has been awarded numerous distinctions, including the 2014 Pura Belpré Author Award and a 2013 Cybils Award for her young adult novel “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.” In March 2014, she was recognized as one of the CNN 10 Visionary Women in America. In November 2014, she was named one of Latino Stories’ Top Ten Latino Authors to Watch.
Her work often examines how cultures intersect through the eyes of young people, and she always writes — whether for young children or teens or young adults — in ways that speak to Latino youth, helloing them to feel seen, understood, and to know that they are not alone.
BeLatina sat down to chat with Meg Medina about her latest project, her best advice for Latina authors, and what’s next for Merci Suarez.
It’s so crucial for Latinx teens to be able to see themselves in literature. Why was it so important to you to bring the experiences of Latino youth to life through Merci and the Suárez family?
Meg Medina: I suppose I felt an initial urgency because I had so few representations of my bi-cultural reality in books when I was growing up. Today, my urgency is a little different. I’m concerned that if Latinx authors don’t fill the literary space with authentic and realistic representations of our children and families, we risk allowing stereotypes to fill the void instead. Just look at film and TV for examples. The potential for damage is so high when we continue to cast Latinx characters as people whose only story is immigration, poverty, and violent, drug-oriented experiences. Those narratives exist and should be told with sensitivity and respect, but they are not the only true and meaningful stories about Latinx people. Our young people need to see our communities reflected accurately and thoroughly.
Your books examine the culture and uniqueness of Latino families and what unites us all. What do you hope young readers will take away from your work and the adventures of Merci Suárez?
One of the pleasures of writing the Suárez family has been the ability to write all the specific realities of a Cuban family in South Florida and have people outside of Cuban culture find a connection to what Merci and her family are facing. As Americans, we are not all the same, but our differences don’t have to be barriers. I hope readers take away a sense of the common things among people – including the universal longings of childhood. As kids, we hope for true friends and families who love us. We look for emotional and physical safety. We want to be seen and respected as we grow up.
How did your upbringing and experiences as a Cuban-American inspire your literary work?
I think trauma [deeply impacted] my family’s arrival here. My family left Cuba during a tumultuous political time in the early 1960s, leaving behind the people they loved dearly, most of their belongings, and their entire world. The life of an immigrant in the US meant low wages, language barriers, and many other losses, too. I think my family dealt with that sense of loss through storytelling about their lives back home. They were natural and earnest storytellers, and they told me the tales of their lives with plain honesty and emotion. I believe I developed my ear for stories from them. In writing the “Merci Suárez” series, I wanted to be true to their spirit. I’ve tried to capture their warmth and their focus on family. I’ve drawn the shared child-rearing, the sometimes-neurotic fears, the money troubles, the way we viewed and cared for our elders — all of it. The result is a complicated family, and that feels real.
The world needs more Latina voices in literature. What is your best advice for young Latinas and teens who are coming of age and want to be an author?
First and foremost, they must know that they are enough, that their everyday lives are worthy of becoming poems, stories, and novels. Next, I would advise reading as widely as possible. That means reading Latinx authors — the established voices and those who are up-and-coming and reading voices from across the globe and genres. It’s important to wrap yourself in the world of words and ideas.
What’s next for Merci Suárez? And what’s next for Meg Medina?
Merci Suárez will enter her last year of middle school in the final book, “Merci Suárez Plays it Cool,” in September 2022. Eighth grade will be the school year when Merci will have to make tough decisions about herself and her friends, and it’s going to be the year when her grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s will finally come into full effect. It’s a big responsibility to bring a series in for a landing. There are so many storylines to tie together. But I think readers will be pleased, especially if they use the summer to catch up on the first two books in the series. As for me… aquí, escribiendo! I’ve got a picture book in production and am working on the manuscript for a fantasy middle-grade novel. In other words, more adventures await!