Newbery Medalist Meg Medina has been named the eighth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position established in 2008 by the Library of Congress and Every Child a Reader to promote lifelong literacy in children and teens. Medina, who is Cuban American, is the first author of Latina heritage to step into the role. She told PW, “It’s a beautiful honor. It feels like I’ve been entrusted with the reading and writing lives of America’s children. On a personal note, I’d say it’s a little surreal.”
The inauguration will take place at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., at 10:30 a.m. on January 24, attended by local school groups and Medina’s predecessor Jason Reynolds. The ceremony will also be livestreamed.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement, “I am delighted Meg Medina will serve as the next National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Meg’s warmth and openness, coupled with her long-running commitment to young readers, libraries, and librarians, is extraordinary. I look forward to the ways she will invite young people—especially Spanish and bilingual speakers—to share their favorite books and stories.”
The recipient of the 2019 Newbery Medal for her middle grade novel Merci Suárez Changes Gears (Candlewick), Medina is not so much changing gears with this appointment as shifting into a higher one. “I have moved through my publishing life with advocacy and with community-building as part of my career,” she said, “so it’s not a completely new way of thinking.” For her two-year platform as ambassador, Medina has chosen “¡Cuéntame!: Let’s Talk Books,” which will focus on bringing children and their families and communities together, both inside and outside the classroom, by discussing books. Fittingly, the idea emerged during a conversation with her daughter Sandra. Medina explained, “When Spanish-speaking people meet and they haven’t seen each other for a while, it always starts with the gentle expression cuéntame—how are you? So tell me!” Literally, she said, “the awkward, clunky direct translation is story me. That really seemed to resonate for me with how children think about books and stories and connection.”
Centering this Spanish word in her platform, Medina celebrates her bilingual and multicultural identity and her commitment to reaching both English and Spanish-speaking readers. “I’m the ambassador for all kids in the country, but it’s exciting to represent someone who moves through reading and literacy in different languages,” she said. “If you look out into any school, there is every kind of kid sitting in front of you. And all of those experiences come with stories.” In her own work, Medina said, “I incorporate lots of Spanish and lots of translanguaging and opportunities for children who are familiar with Spanish to feel seen and to hear the language of their families on the page. But also, it’s a way for folks who are not necessarily Spanish speakers to be able to use decoding skills and clues from the text to connect. Literacy in any language will help kids move forward.”
Medina is conscious that reading has become “a school subject that kids learn and get a grade on.” Part of her mission is “to reclaim it and return it to families and kids and communities.” Over the next two years, she envisions “working with kids in their schools, but also in their libraries and with their families, on how we choose the books that speak to us—how we think about them and, more importantly, how we talk them up to each other.”
When asked about the role models who inspired her own love of reading, Medina credited her elementary school teachers for giving her and her classmates opportunities for free-reading every day after lunch, a vital chance to choose books for themselves. She also expressed gratitude for her mother’s steady encouragement. “She was a recent immigrant with very little money, but she always let me order books from the Scholastic Book Fair. I was allowed to order any book I wanted that we could afford,” Medina reflected. “She also bought the World Book encyclopedia, complete with the Childcraft volume, which was a very hard thing for her to do at the time. She had been a teacher in Cuba and she knew the value of knowing about the world and imagining a bigger world than the one that you were currently occupying.” Medina went on to acknowledge “the authors themselves: the Judy Blumes, the beautiful voices that were creating books that helped me to grow.” In her work as ambassador, she said, she hopes to shine the light on the many contemporary authors writing from diverse perspectives for today’s young readers.
Medina joins the ranks of previous ambassadors Jon Scieszka (2008–2009), Katherine Paterson (2010–2011), Walter Dean Myers (2012–2013), Kate DiCamillo (2014–2015), Gene Luen Yang (2016–2017), Jacqueline Woodson (2018–2019), and most recently Jason Reynolds (2020–2022), whom she counts as a friend and colleague. “Jason’s words ring in my ears,” she said. “It’s an honor, but it’s also a job. I’m really hopeful and excited to travel the country and meet readers.”
Of course, Medina will also continue writing and releasing books throughout her tenure. She is currently working on a middle-grade fantasy and has a picture book in production. “I fully anticipate that these two years are going to be very, very full. These two years are about service to a larger vision about kids and reading and our literate lives. So it’s okay if I pause a bit and produce a little less while I’m doing this important work. I think I just have to stay limber and keep my knees from locking, and see where it takes me.”
The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, based on the nominations of professionals in the children’s book community, as well as members of the 2023–2024 selection committee: Cathy Berner, children’s and young adult specialist and events coordinator at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston; Klem-Marí Cajigas, family literacy coordinator for Bringing Books to Life! at the Nashville Public Library; Nicole A. Cooke, the Augusta Baker endowed chair for childhood literacy and associate professor at the University of South Carolina; Saraciea J. Fennell, founder and CEO of The Bronx Is Reading, and executive director of the Bronx Book Festival; Kathy Ishizuka, editor in chief and partnerships and innovation director at School Library Journal; Brein Lopez, general manager at Children’s Book World in Los Angeles; Jason Reynolds, author and 2020–2022 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; Diane Roback, senior v-p and children’s book editor at Publishers Weekly; and Deborah Taylor, youth literature specialist and retired coordinator of school and student services at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.