On May 24, Newbery Medalist and newly appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Meg Medina sat down with the New York Times for Kids editorial director Amber Williams to discuss her storied career, the 10th anniversary of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and her latest project.
Williams kicked off their discussion by asking Medina how growing up in Queens, N.Y., has influenced her writing over the years. “Childhood for me is completely linked with Flushing, Queens,” she said, referencing the city streets and subway stop that made up her neighborhood. “It’s actually a bigger stretch for me when I’m trying to write a child living in a situation closer to where I live now (in Richmond, Va.),” she said. “Apartment life, being in close proximity with neighbors, that mix of sweet and sour that is just all over city life—I like writing that piece.”
One of Medina’s childhood experiences, in fact, shaped her 2013 novel Yaqui Delgado, which is now being adapted as a graphic novel. While Williams characterized the book as “rebellious” and inquired as to whether Medina believed that attitude has percolated through the scope of her work, Medina admitted to being most surprised by the reaction to the title itself. “Kids have no problem with it; it’s the parents who get riled up and it stops them from reading all the way through,” she said, pointing out the book’s “soft censoring” at schools and libraries over the past decade. She is interested in how the graphic novel version will be received and gave credit to illustrator Mel Valentine Vergas for translating “a sense of urgency and despair” into this format. A notable addition to the new release is Medina herself, who makes an appearance in the pages (“I won’t tell you where; you’ll have to find me,” she teased).
Williams noted that Medina’s writing covers a lot of emotionally heavy topics—Alzheimer’s, immigration, family dynamics—yet she never talks down to her young readers. Medina revealed that she remembers herself at that age: the “fury and voicelessness” she experienced at 14 served as a guide for crafting Yaqui; and the “mix of joy and hopefulness, while feeling the pinch of adult life” at age 12 informed Merci. “The key is inhabiting the child inside you at different ages. The moment we step out of it is when we run into trouble because we start to make childhood less messy,” she said.
Commending Medina for her stories’ timelessness, Williams also acknowledged her for staying relevant by peppering in social media anecdotes, like characters posting videos or using Snapchat. To achieve this balance, Medina said she relied on her “much younger” editor to stay current, but she was careful not to overdo it by sounding “cringey,” as she put it.
A Return to Joy
The conversation shifted from Medina’s achievements as a writer to her new role as the 2023–2024 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Williams pointed out that in her acceptance speech, the author cited her desire of “getting back to joy.’’ To counteract the pandemic’s negative impact on kids, Medina is intent on helping children and families reconnect through reading, “showing kids how to talk about books [in a way] that is not a book report, about why they love something and why they think you should take a risk on this book.” Medina has been turning to horror and manga at her own readers’ suggestions. She aspires to use her ambassadorship to create an audio archive of authors reading from their work and sharing their thoughts on reading. “It’s a quick way for children to realize that we have so many incredible people writing incredible stories,” she noted. “We have a lot of barriers right now, so I’d like to create something that’s accessible.”
Medina said her platform will focus on reminding parents of their power in guiding their children’s reading journey. “The strongest position that parents can have is to be in conversation about what their kids are reading and what they think about it,” she said. “I feel like librarians and teachers are under enormous pressure, and anything I can do to support them, I will,” she added.
At the close of the talk, Medina hinted at her latest project: a fantasy set in the abyss, where all the characters are dead. “What could go wrong?,” she quipped. The as-yet-untitled work, whose publication date is unknown, represents a departure from Medina’s contemporary storytelling. “I am fascinated by the notion of creating light in a place where there is no light, because I think children are tasked with the same thing,” she said.