Award-winning author Meg Medina speaks to Elon pre-service teachers on representing Latinx culture in, through literature

Pre-service teachers met virtually with Meg Medina, a Newbery award-winning and New York Times best-selling author, to hear her story and learn how to represent Latinx culture in and through literature.

On Friday Sept. 17, pre-service teachers in the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education tuned in for a live virtual discussion with Meg Medina, Newbery Award-winning and New York Times best-selling author.

Medina’s works, primarily picture books and young adult fiction, have been called “heartbreaking,” “lyrical” and “must haves for every collection.” Her titles include: “Merci Suárez Can’t Dance,” which was named as one of the 50 most anticipated novels of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews; “Merci Suárez Changes Gears,”  the winner of the 2019 John Newbery Medal and 2019 Charlotte Huck Honor Book; and “Burn Baby Burn,” which was long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award, short-listed for the Kirkus Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Meg MedinaPhoto credit: Sonya Sones

Ellie Gaudin ‘22, an English major with a teacher licensure, organized four book club meetings prior to Friday’s virtual author visit. The Watts Williams School of Education pre-service teachers were deeply engaged with Medina’s “Burn Baby Burn.” Book club discussions centered around this young adult text were realistic as they found it easy to apply the book to their own lives.

“Book club has been such a wonderful chance to join together in conversations about text construction and interpretation, especially in relation to education and the classroom as well as an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions about representation in literature,” Gaudin said.

This event was sponsored by the Curriculum Resources Center and was an extension of The Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning Diversity and Inclusion Grant awarded to Joan Barnatt, associate professor of education, and Allison Bryan, director of the Curriculum Resources Center (CRC). Their project, “Representing Diversity and Inclusion in and Through Literature,” focuses on incorporating Latinx literature in the Children’s Literature course and the CRC collection.

Medina’s virtual visit with pre-service teachers was powerful. “I was moved to tears – Queens, balancing two worlds, being the first proficient English speaker, representation, validation,” said Erika Kim ’22, elementary education major. “Her story is mine in a different font, with different words, but the same emotions and feelings and nuances. I was just awestruck.”

Ashley Barron ’22, elementary education major, said, “I really liked how one of Meg Medina’s biggest goals is to show and instill agency in her readers and how she writes for different age groups based on how she’s feeling.”

The biggest takeaway for Taylor Hale ’22, elementary education major, was “making sure you have books that relate to so many different students or people who may walk into your classroom.”

In addition to sharing her powerful story, pre-service teachers had the opportunity to ask her some questions. Below are some of the questions and responses, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Meg Medina: My aunt was the worst driver and was always lost. I remember us riding in the Buick and we got lost somewhere. This was before the days of Garmin, cell phones and Google Maps. We stopped to ask someone for directions and my aunt was speaking with the English that she had and the person was explaining in the English that she had and they weren’t meeting. Neither of them were understanding one another. He told her in very coarse language to essentially go back to where she came from. It left us feeling so embarrassed. You just don’t forget that moment when someone rejects you, mocks you, in that public way.

How did your experiences with teaching influence the children’s books you have written?

MM: Teaching takes physical and mental stamina, not only with the children but also with the adults you work with. When the classroom doors close, you create this bubble with your students. Teachers are responsible for their classroom climate with a sense of adventure, trust and love. I loved that part of teaching and I miss this. Writing was an urgent need that I had. I got into writing children’s literature because I was teaching. Reading children’s literature felt like a warm blanket. When I write now, I write knowing that I’m creating that feeling.

What was your favorite book and why?

MM: My most enjoyable book to write was “Merci Suárez Changes Gears.” I had just finished writing “Burn Baby Burn” and that was a heavy dense novel of suffering and here comes Merci and she allowed me to explore my funny bone and be silly. Merci was sweet and sour in a way I really liked. My pictures books are very gratifying to write, they feel very restful. The young adult books are the hardest to write because the emotion is so raw in the sense of rage against adult hypocrisy, the world and self.

How can we promote translanguage and cultural diversity within a classroom where funding limits our capabilities?

MM: By creating a really robust celebration of language, through writing, oral tradition and telling stories from home. However, you have to continue to fight the budget fight. When you think about the choices you are bringing into your classroom, into your students’ world, you have to be thoughtful and driven about advocating for equality materials. Choose what you really believe in, pedagogically. Always choose to stand up for children and their learning.

If someone prepared a lesson with one of your books, what is something you would want them to include?

MM: In Cuban music, there is this thing called clave, the basis or beat; it never changes. My clave is always about girls and culture and family and where those three things meet and what that means. I always appreciate when someone is reading my books and they see that clave. When books become published they become thousands of interpretations of a story because the reader is coming to that book with their own experience. When you are talking to children about books, it’s important to help them connect to the story based on their own experience.

“Merci Suarez Can’t Dance”

When not writing, Medina serves on the Advisory Committee for We Need Diverse Books, the grassroots organization working to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. She also works on community projects that support girls, Latinx youth and/or literacy. She is a faculty member of Hamline University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Children’s Literature. Medina lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

An essay written by Medina on her service as a teacher will be published in the English Journal, a publication of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in May 2022.