Using Stories to Make Connections: An Interview with Meg Medina

To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we talked with Meg Medina, author of Tia Isa Wants a Car, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind and many other great stories available on the First Book Marketplace.

Learn why she became a children’s author, how her family heritage influences her stories and a surprising way her book has been used in classrooms and programs.

What led you to become a children’s author?

The process of telling story and sharing story was always just part of my family life. It was a beautiful way of connecting me to this larger idea of my family and what had come before.

My family came from Cuba throughout the 60s and 70s. For them, the process of losing country was a traumatic one, so story was used as a way to define and remember home. My grandmother in particular was a natural storyteller. She was my babysitter after school and would fill my head with stories of her own growing up, the first day she saw my grandfather, falling in love.

I ended up being someone who was good at writing, all kinds of writing, journalism and so on.  I really started to feel like I had found my place when I began to weave tales for young kids by accessing my own story.

In what ways does your personal story and the cultural heritage of your family influence the books you write? What else influences your writing?

When you are writing for children, in some ways you are writing for the child that you were. You’re asking the questions you had that lingered. But they have to be universal questions we have about growing up so that stories endure and feel fresh.

I’m not writing the stories directly from my life… I’m exploring the questions that I had that I believe children still have.

Then, I overlay issues that are more contemporary. For example, I remember clearly the very laborious process of sending money to Cuba to our relatives so they could survive. Many Latino families here send money back to their home country. So, in Tia Isa Wants a Car, I present that experience to show that we care deeply about those we left at home and we don’t stop being connected to them just because we are here in the United States.

Tia Isa Wants a Car shows a family that works hard to send money back to their family members in their home county. For those children who know this as a common experience, why is it important for them to see this experience in a book? For children who do not know this experience, why is it important for them to see it in a book?

It’s a supreme act of generosity and such a statement about the value of family across the nations of Latin America. Loving and helping your family survive is central to the culture. Any time you see your experience reflected in pages of a book, it’s a validation. It says “I exist. This experience that I have exists; there’s nothing shameful or weird about it. There are people just like me.”

That is really essential. For me it’s important to give a representation of the reality we’re facing.

Understanding across cultural borders is also really important to me. For kids who don’t know this experience, it answers their question: “Really?! You send money to another country? Why?” I think it only increases empathy.

Why is it important to feature strong girls and women as protagonists in your books?

Sometimes the way we characterize Latinas is very one-dimensional. It’s important to represent Latinas as we are.

What I want to give Latina girls is the sense that we come in every shade, in every shape, from every economic group. Some of us speak Spanish, some us don’t, some us speak English really well and some of us don’t. It’s a whole range and it’s all good.

In Tia Isa Wants a Car, everyone tells Tia Isa that she can’t have a car. She’s supposedly not able to do it, they assume because she’s a lady and because there’s no money, because “that’s just ridiculous.” But she does it anyway. I find that amazing. I have known so many Latina women in my life who have pressed on in the face of everyone telling them “No, you can’t” or “it’s too hard.”

It’s about resilience. It’s about a girl naming who she wants to be, not allowing the boys, or society or TV to define them or their goals. I want to reconnect Latina girls with that sense of strength and pride in themselves.

As you may now know, we used Tia Isa Wants a Car in some tip sheets we created with Understood.org with tips on how to use this book with children with special needs, specifically children with learning and attention issues. Were you surprised to see that your book was used in that way?

I was! It didn’t occur to me. And what’s more, I have a daughter with special needs. For her, reading and learning was difficult and it took patience. The whole notion of patience is such a thread in the book. You do have to be patient as you’re saving and waiting for good things to happen, sometimes you want it now and can’t imagine waiting another second.

I’m so excited that my book is being used this way.

When kids see themselves in the book, or a problem they feel, or see a character wrestling with the same thing, it goes miles for reducing their loneliness, their sense that there is something wrong with them.

It’s exciting when educators find some aspect of the book that meets the needs of the kids in their seats.  That’s the magic of books!

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