by Concetta Gleason
Is it weird to walk up to a stranger and tell them how much you love them? For me, not when it’s an author you really admire—at least not totally weird.
Well, Meg Medina, Pura Belpré Award and Honor recipient, was kind enough to not run screaming when I introduced myself and proclaimed my admiration for her after an author event at New York University. Medina was at the event discussing her new book, Mango, Abuela y yo, which explores the relationship between an abuela and her granddaughter, Mia. In the story, Abuela speaks little English and Mia little Spanish. But as they learn to communicate, they forge a great bond.
Medina herself was born in Virginia to parents who emigrated from Cuba, and Mango, Abuela y yo was inspired by her complex and compelling abuelas from her own childhood.
Mango, Abuela y yo won the Pura Belpré Narrative Honor and Illustration Honor this year (2016), on the 20th anniversary of the award’s founding. This accolade is a big deal to me personally as the Club Leo en español editor. So what is the Pura Belpré Award?
It’s a prestigious honor that celebrates the very best authors and illustrators in children’s literature who reflect Latino cultural heritage. The award is named after trailblazing librarian Pura Belpré.
Belpré was a woman of many firsts. She was the first Latina librarian in the New York Public Library, as well as the first author, editor, and translator to publish a full collection of classic Puerto Rican folktales in North America. This was literally the first publication of its kind on the entire continent. Think about that.
Belpré originally came to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1921 and was hired in 1926 as a librarian to meet the growing demands of a burgeoning Spanish-speaking population in Harlem. She quickly realized the books available did not reflect their lives. Sensing this, Belpré worked to provide literature to children that reinforced feelings of self-value and pride in their own cultural legacy.
Concetta Gleason: What is a story?
Meg Medina: To me, story is about capturing the heart of people when they’re faced with a challenge. How people handle problems, large and small, reveals them. What’s fascinating, of course, is that no two people will react exactly the same way. When I’m thinking about a story, I’m always considering the main character and what he or she will face. The joy for me is in discovering how that character responds, even when I throw harder and harder obstacles in the way.
CG: Why is reading important to you?
MM: Reading gives me an escape to another time and place where I can walk around inside the mind and heart of someone else. It gives me a quiet place where I can connect with experiences—those that are far from my own and also with experiences that feel familiar from my own life. I also love to read in Spanish. It’s not my dominant language—and I am certainly slower—but there is such a joy in being able to unlock two worlds.
CG: Why is writing important to you?
MM: It is like breathing to me. I don’t know how to live without writing. It’s how I find peace inside myself and how I figure out a path forward. In writing for young people specifically, I use it as a safe place to wonder about the questions that were left unanswered for me as a child. My characters help me walk back in time to reexamine things that were hard or confusing so that I can make some sense of them now.
CG: How can reading connect children with their parents/extended family?
MM: Reading and storytelling of every kind have the potential to center a family. There are the obvious benefits for children that we always read about: better vocabulary skills, better prediction skills, wider knowledge about the wider world. But to me, those are secondary to the family time and shared sense of wonder about the world and the people in it. Parents have just so much to gain by spending time with their children in this way.
CG: What’s the value of reading diverse, multicultural books to a family?
MM: First, seeing your family’s language, foods, experiences, and customs in the pages of a book is a powerful statement of value. Children and parents need that, particularly if they’re relatively new to this country.
Diverse books also open an avenue for parents to talk about their own experiences growing up and to offer children a sense of their roots, a way of understanding that they are part of something larger than just their own life experiences.
Finally, I like dual-language or bilingual editions because they provide a natural way for everyone to practice multiple fluencies. Stories build common grounds to explore language. I love the idea of using books to help everyone not only improve English skills but also as a way to preserve or even add new languages in the family.
Photo courtesy of the Pura Belpré Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Reading Club
Mango, Abuela y yo
by Meg Medina, ilustrado por Angela Dominguez
Grades PreK–2 | Ages 4–7