Long before the Library of Congress named Meg Medina the 2023–2024 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, she understood the stakes in writing for children. “You have to center the reader, think about them as sacred, and really write childhood,” she says. “They’re growing up. You’re helping to build their tools, their sense of self and fairness, and the way they self-reflect and understand people.”

Medina has written picture books (Tía Isa Wants a Car, for which she won the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award), middle grade (the 2019 Newbery Medal–winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears), and YA (Burn Baby Burn, longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award). No matter the readership, she says, she begins by writing for the kid inside her. Whether age five, or 10, or 17, “whichever Meg I’m talking to, I mainline back into the questions I had, the feelings of that time, the exact coordinates of that existence. You’re writing for the child you’re writing about. You want to give them agency within what’s possible for a child.”

A Medina character whose agency is tested is Piedad “Piddy” Sanchez, a smart Cuban American teenager bullied at her new high school. In 2013’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Piddy is inexplicably threatened by a girl she doesn’t even know. Her silence about what’s happening, even after events turn violent, amplifies the friction between her and her mother.

You have to center the reader, think about them as sacred.

The story’s timeliness has led to the forthcoming Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass: The Graphic Novel (Candlewick, Sept.), illustrated by Mel Valentine Vargas. In the intervening decade, Medina says, “bullying has been embraced by the adult world to win, shame someone, or have the upper hand. There are ecosystems of bullying in school, but we can keep widening the circle to all the ways that people use power and shame and force to hurt others.”

Medina hopes the graphic novel prompts self-assessment by kids who bully others. “Seeing yourself in black and white—is there a moment of reflection there that can move them to another way of thinking?” she asks.

How does the power and shame wielded by proponents of book banning impact Medina as the national ambassador, a nonpartisan position? “The work is in talking to folks about building kids’ thinking so that they can make the decisions that feel right for them as they move into adulthood,” she says.

Yet Medina the author, speaking for herself, is frank: “I’ve never seen it work to a parent’s benefit to be an obstacle between kids and the books they want to read. We won’t all agree on what books should look like for kids. But reading and discussing books together is much more powerful than removing them.”

Meg Medina will be in conversation with Amber Williams, editorial director of the New York Times for Kids, on Wednesday, May 24, 10:30–11 a.m.

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