Meg Medina Talks with Roger

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Photo: Petite Shards Productions.

With Merci Suárez Changes Gears, Pura Belpré medalist Meg Medina introduces us to sixth grader Merci, who's trying to find her place in a new school. Haven't we all?

Roger Sutton: In Merci Suárez, whether someone speaks in Spanish or English, there are no italics to indicate a shift in language. How do you feel about Spanish and italics?

Meg Medina: There is a lot of conversation about how we "other" people and how we create certain barriers by using italics or not. The way I think of it is that because bilingual people are thinking in two languages at the same time, it doesn't make sense to use italics and have their words that aren't in English be something "foreign."

RS: When the character is speaking, it's not. It's just their talking.

MM: Correct. The issues of how to present language for bilingual and bicultural people are tricky. In real life, we slip in and out of languages, sometimes from the beginning of the sentence to the end. It's an interesting dance, and I find it really fun. Now, with all of that said, my early works did use italics, because I grew up in the era when we used italics for phrases that were not English. That in and of itself isn't a reason to keep something forever. But I do think there are some times when italics make sense, and when not using italics can be confusing. For example, in a picture book where the word "come," as in "come here" is the same as "come," which is "to eat" in Spanish, I think that can be hard for readers. What we want to do with a picture book is engage kids in the story, but also help them become independent readers. So I'm not sure that using italics is always wrong. I decide on a case-by-case basis. I write across age groups, and it helps to think: what are the benefits and the drawbacks for that particular book? I also feel strongly that we have to give room to authors to write the way they need to write. I don't hassle anybody for using italics, and I don't hassle anybody for not using italics, the same way I don't hassle people if they decide "I'm done with quotation marks; it shall be the dash from now on!" Fine. I'm game. I'm in. I will sit with your book. I will come to you as a reader and participate in it with you in the way that you want me to.

RS: In library school, one of my professor's pet peeves was when a "foreign-speaking" — as we would say then — person's dialogue in a book would be, like, "'Hola,' Meg said. 'Hello.'"

MM: Right.

RS: It's great that you don't do that. In ninety-nine percent of the cases in Merci Suárez, I realized very quickly what the Spanish word was because of the context. You didn't have to translate it for me, and it was clear because it was part of a conversation that italics would just look odd, because it wouldn't be italicized in the speaker's head or mouth.

MM: Exactly.

RS: I was losing this argument in a recent case here in the office. In an interview an author was referring to "corridos," the Mexican murder ballads. My editors didn't want to italicize it, and I said it looks like we've just misspelled "corridors."

MM: Right, right. You see, it's not easy. But those are the interesting conversations around language. It's so elastic. That's the beauty. Who knew what a selfie was fifteen years ago? No one. It's all stuff like that. I believe in the elasticity of language, in being generous as we experiment and move forward, and moving forward in the spirit of connecting with the reader. Especially when you're writing for kids.

RS: There's a lot of technology in your book. How do you write contemporary realistic fiction for, say, fourth or fifth graders, that incorporates the technology kids use today, which you did not grow up with? I've seen so many authors of my age — I'm sixty — or really anybody who's over fifty grapple with this.

MM: This is when it pays to have young, smart editors in your life. I don't think about anything like that. What matters most to me is the character, the story, the issue that she's grappling with. Then those things — like did she use this or that app — become questions later on, when I'm looking back and saying what doesn't feel contemporary? I was on a school visit in Brooklyn not long ago, and the teachers asked, "What do the students need to have with them to work with you?" I said, "Oh, it's very simple. Just some paper and pencils." "Paper?" They had to go hunting through the school for paper, and they came back with this yellow loose-leaf. Then I realized I'm surrounded by whiteboards, and the kids all have their little tablets. I think you just have to be aware of that. And technology shifts so quickly. I made up the names of some apps in the book, modeled on things that are currently available, and then made up stuff that who knows if it can be done, but it sounded right in context. The picture app that Merci uses to turn people into animals — I think you can do that on Snapchat, but I wanted it to be an app for only that. I'm not tethered to whether a real-life app is in or out.

RS: You don't have some little nerd saying, "Well, actually, Ms. Medina, it doesn't work that way."

MM: Right. But I did have to learn how to Snap. That was painful. I really don't love social media. It is not my favorite use of time. I always feel like I'm dealing with people's curated selves instead of their authentic selves. That's true even when I'm tweeting something. I have to remind myself, "Come to it. Connect with people this way. This is where the conversations are happening." I think the one that I'm most comfortable with is — God help us all — Twitter.

RS: That's the one that scares me the most.

MM: Yeah, it has a lot of backlash. And it's not the place to have deep conversations. Some people use it that way, in long threads that they have figured out how to link, but I like meatier conversations to happen slowly. I like them in person—I'm more old-school that way. But for connecting quickly, for being able to give a fast update, a link, saying, "Look how this or this is ridiculous" or whatever, you can do that on Twitter. It doesn't have to be a big investment of your soul.

RS: I'm assuming that there is some of young you in Merci. Am I in line there?

MM: Yes.

RS: Technology aside, what do you think would be different for you as a Cuban American sixth grader today?

MM: I think it would be different in some important ways, but some things linger. Certainly the idea of how awkward it can be when you're moving in circles where there's a wide economic difference. The haves and the have-nots — that's hard on kids. I was a public-school kid. Economic differences in public school present problems, but in private school, where we have this notion of it being a privileged place — to be the kid on scholarship in a very, very expensive school, beyond what your family can afford, and how grateful you are supposed to be for this "opportunity," that all presents some really awkward moments for the very kids we think we're helping. I do think that private schools today are often more diverse than they were maybe twenty years ago. I go to a lot of private schools where I see kids from lots of backgrounds. So that's different from when I was younger.

RS: Did you come from a close family?

MM: My family was very close. I never lived far from my grandparents and my aunts, and everybody raised me, in every way. There was no moment of privacy. There was nothing that people weren't allowed to comment on or boss you about. Your entire family raised you. But I didn't have the joy and the challenge of living side-by-side in the way that my mother always dreamed that she could, with her sisters and her parents in Miami. I grew up in New York.

RS: In that sort of multigenerational extended family, kids can have a multitude of adults who they can bring things to. And who they have to listen to!

MM: Yes, and no single adult can fill all the things that kids need. That's the beauty of extended families, when they work. You have the aunt that you can tell the truth to. You have the uncle who's good at fixing things and teaches you how to, and your parents are this and your grandparents are that. I love that the whole process of growing and changing in a family feels very natural, that we don't segregate the very old or the very young. I have this memory from when I moved to Florida for a time when my kids were little. My mom lived there too. I don't remember which of my kids' birthday it was, but I said something very American to my mom like, "It's a little-kid party. It's pizza and a bunch of kids at the pool. You don't have to come. Don't worry, we'll have a family celebration later." My mother looked at me as though I had stabbed her in the heart. She was like, "I am not coming to my granddaughter's birthday?!" It's unheard of. Every birthday party — every everything — is for everyone from the newborn to the ninety-nine-year-old who's getting wheeled up the ramp. That's how celebrations happen. It's not in these little silos the way we do in American family life. Americans love their families, love their kids and love their elders. But this notion of all together all the time is much more pronounced in Latino culture. And I love that. Even though it presents hard moments too.

RS: Do you feel even though you are Cuban American yourself, you had to check what you were writing for its authenticity?

MM: Yes. I think everybody always does. I've gotten things wrong in my own novels. You can't take anything for granted. Also, you have to remember you're telling one tiny piece of the story. Early in my career, people would tag my work with things like "about the Latino experience." That's such a ridiculous statement. How many experiences are there?

RS: That's quite a responsibility.

MM: Right, and it's irrational. It's impossible. Which is why we need so many more voices at the table to really tell a fuller story for all people. I do check myself. With language and phrases, I'll run them by friends and family and ask, "Is this how we say this? I forgot." I don't assume that I know. Especially when I'm thinking about the history of each character — how did Abuela get here? How did Lolo get here? Did they come in the sixties? Did they come in the eighties, with the Marielitos? What was their history? That doesn't necessarily come to the page, but in terms of the timeline of each character's life, and the filter that they'll use to look at situations, that matters. A country's history matters. That's especially true of Cuba, which is such a different country today than it was in the early sixties when my mother left. You have to take into account the new generation of parents and grandparents that you're talking about — when they left, when they would have arrived, what their experiences were.

RS: Right, and why they left.

MM: Right.

RS: One thing that's so interesting to me is that thirty years ago, we said we wanted stories about what we called then "other cultures," where the characters "just happened to be" African American, Mexican American, whatever it might be. That was considered a laudable goal. But now people raise their eyebrows at that expression. They say you don't just happen to be Cuban American.

MM: That's true. But what I do understand about the original intent — "just happened to be," what you don't want, what you're trying to avoid, is a character who is really a white character with the name Juana. You don't want that default thing. What you want to write is the true representation of a full person who is from a particular culture and therefore moves through the world with that lens. Sometimes, though, when we're writing stories about (or looking for stories about) Latino children, or children who are from a variety of marginalized cultures, we have the danger of writing the story of crisis all the time. Of economic crisis, of violence in their neighborhoods, of dysfunction in their families. That happens. It happens in every culture. But you can also write about the many happy Latino families whose parents work, who have the trials and tribulations of family life and school life, without emphasizing the very, very deepest pain that a person can experience. For me, to tell the full story of people, we need all those kinds of stories, the stories about the really hard things, the funny stories, the mysteries, all of it. It's really about how accurately we're drawing characters as full people. Sometimes when I'm teaching or presenting at a conference, I call this the "hall pass syndrome." So many people want me to give them a hall pass to write Latino characters if they're not Latino. They want me to give them the stamp of approval — "It's okay, of course you can do it." What I'm always telling them is what matters most is writing the person. You're writing a human being, a full human being, with a really particular lens. You're not writing a type. You're not writing a Mexican American character. You're writing Luis, who's twelve, who etc., etc. To get to that requires a lot of understanding and exposure and so on. That's a whole other question. But it's this issue of not writing type, but writing real people.

RS: Right, and making the crises and the conflicts within a novel particular to those people, not those people as examples of their ethnic group.

MM: Exactly. We're continuing to evolve. The conversation continues to evolve.

RS: And Merci is certainly an individual. I like her.

MM: Yeah, I like her too. I liked her when I met her. I wrote her for a story in Flying Lessons & Other Stories [edited by Ellen Oh] called "Sol Painting, Inc." That's the first time I met Merci. She and Roli were going to paint with their dad that day, and Papi springs on them his big great idea that in exchange for painting the gym, he's getting a tuition break for Merci. They have to spend the day when kids are there in the summer, the sports teams and things like that. That story is just a little sliver of an exchange, but it examines what it feels like to be an invisible person — a lawn worker, a painter. Merci suddenly sees how her father behaves in this situation, how her brother behaves in this situation, and I think for the first time she is pondering what that is going to mean for her at this school. That's where I left it in that story. What I liked about her — certainly that she's plucky, that she's trying so hard to remain herself at a time when we just don't know what that is. When you're twelve, you have no idea. Everything's changing around you, even the most important people and the most important things. I just couldn't stop with her. And I still can't stop, I have to tell you. I feel like there's still more to tell about Merci.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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