written and photographed by Claire Miller
Whether Cuban singers and musicians are performing songs of joy or heartache, they all have one thing in common: The clave.
This 3-2 rhythmic pattern runs through all Cuban Son music and is considered sacred by musicians and the Cuban people. And it’s a rhythm that award-winning Cuban-American author Meg Medina knows well.
“I think of my work as ‘Son’ and my recurring themes as ‘clave’ because everyone needs an internal rhythm that does not change, an essential beat that we move to that cannot be shaken off course,” said Medina at the College of Education & Human Development’s second annual Lecture on Diversity and Justice in Children’s Literature on Feb. 1. “So my one true story, my theme is not merely childhood – it is girls and family and culture, and how those three things intersect in childhood.”
Medina writes picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction, and she expertly weaves her own experiences growing up as the daughter of Cuban immigrants into her stories. For example, her mother worked in a transistor radio factory and the women who worked alongside her – the ones who celebrated each other’s birthdays, shared gossip and supported one another as they grew accustomed to life in a new country – became the women who worked in the salon featured in Medina’s young adult novel, “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.”
“From the outside, sometimes people see immigrant communities as places of low income, perhaps as places of crime, as a place where there’s a lack of language and despair. But what’s there is something really different. Inside those communities, there is also a place of enormous interconnectedness, of shared resources, of support and familiarity,” she said. “We owe children the truth as writers, so I believe that when we write for children who are from immigrant communities, it’s essential that what we do is write it with nuance and respect and that we capture the challenges but also the beauty of their lives.”
Medina understands what it means for children to see themselves reflected in children’s books, and she’s an avid supporter of increasing the number of books written by and for Latinx audiences.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin annually collects and analyzes data on children’s books and in 2016, about 8 percent of children’s books they evaluated were written by or about Latinx people. That percentage has doubled since 2013, but there’s still a long way to go, Medina said.
She encouraged educators and faculty members at the lecture to invite new Latinx authors to their schools and library events, buy books written by those authors and keep up with new releases by Latinx authors on websites like Latinos In Kid Lit and Girls of Summer: 18 Books for Strong Girls, the latter of which she co-founded with fellow author Gigi Amateau.
“I’m a fierce advocate for getting more Latinx writers to the table, to get them into MFA programs, writers conferences and professional groups so that we have many of us telling as many stories as possible of what it is to be Latinx in as authentic a voice as possible,” she said.
The College of Education & Human Development’s Lecture on Diversity and Justice in Children’s Literature series engages teacher educators, teachers, media specialists, artists and others in critical conversations about issues of representation, the politics of children’s publishing, literacy and the role of art and artists.