Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

event-poster-4029445So, I’m getting ready to leave for the Texas Book Festival where I will hang with some of my favorite “reading rock star” authors – and with my friend Maya Smart, whose family transplanted there earlier this year to become part of the University of Texas family.

largescatterlogoBut before I head to Austin, I’ll be  making an important pitstop in Tampa, FL to receive the 2015 Joan Kaywell Books Save Lives Award at the University of South Florida. This year, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is the winner, along with honorable mention of Openly Straight by the fabulous Bill Konigsberg.

The timing of the award couldn’t be better for my spirits. It’s Hispanic Heritage month AND it was recently Banned Books Week. That means I’ve had my usual emotional whiplash of being received with open arms or with a full dose of ugly.

L t R: David Shipler, David Levithan, Coe Booth, and me at HousingWorks

L t R: David Shipler, David Levithan, Coe Booth, and me at HousingWorks

If you read this blog regularly, you might know that I spent last week on the road, first to New York City and then down to Arkansas. Coming off of a few days in New York is always a little strange. This is a city where the word “ass” isn’t really a problem. It’s a place with Kinky Boots on Broadway (fantastic,) a painted naked lady on Times Square (not so fantastic,) and books and lecture series absolutely everywhere. Since Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is set in Queens, there is always a sense of the safe and familiar when I talk about the book there. That’s not to say that there aren’t people in New York who oppose the title of my book or its content. But the truth is, I’ve never met them there.

Adored this play

Adored this play

Anyway, after I wrapped up in the city, I headed down to Hot Springs as the guest of the Garland County Public Library. It’s a popular place, thanks to a welcoming staff and some good ideas. Kids can borrow a Halloween costume or fishing rods, along with checking out their favorite books, for example. As it happens, I was their first YA author to visit, and I got driven around in the official library transport vehicle, which the librarians and I nicknamed the Sexy Toaster.

The Sexy Toaster

The Sexy Toaster

Mango fans!

Mango fans!

All was going fine on my school visits. The elementary school children were adorable, as usual, all of them helping me say words in Spanish and English as we talked about Mango, Abuela, and Me. What can I say?  I love little kids with missing teeth, big smiles, and stories they’re dying to tell me. It reminds me of when my own kids were little and we’d crowd around a book on the couch.

But here comes the whiplash. I don’t only write sweet picture books, of course. I write realistic YA fiction, too.  Trouble, trouble, trouble.

My first high school experience was at a small school where they kids hadn’t read the novel. My presentation consisted of a reading of the first two pages of my novel, followed by a 40 minute talk about books and bullying and the events that shaped the book.

When I finished, a teacher and (I later found out) coach approached the stage.

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he said, “but there are children in this room who have heard more filth and vulgar words in the last 30 minutes than they have in their whole lives, and my child was one of them. This was inappropriate.”

My stomach clenched.  My brain went blank. I had no pithy Queens-flavored reply. I honestly felt like he’d spit on me, even though his tone was completely professional.

Luckily, there was a girl from the audience standing nearby, waiting to speak to me, so I kept my cool. I muttered something about how I was sorry he felt that way, that perhaps this would give him a chance to talk to his son about what he had heard and about what bullying looks like here in his school.

This would be a lousy story if not for what happened right after he walked away. The young girl who had been waiting approached me and said. “People make fun of me here. How I look. How I sound. How I keep to myself.”  She showed me a journal where she draws pictures to vent what she’s thinking.

I thought about her all evening, reminding myself that my 45 minutes with her was worth the two minutes of pain at the hands of the disappointed teacher.

IMG_3242The next morning, I’m happy to say, I visited Hot Springs High School, Bill Clinton’s alma mater. I was really feeling gun shy, but almost immediately, I could see a huge difference in how this school operated. Nikki Aitken, their librarian, had organized for the ninth graders to read the novel as a whole. She confessed being concerned when she first considered using the novel, but after reading it to the end, she decided that it had something important to offer kids who are trying to dig for their sense of self and for compassion. Everything about this visit was different. The ninth grade principal was on hand and couldn’t have been more welcoming and encouraging. (Thank you, Mr. Hatley.) And most important of all were the girls who crowded around for pictures afterward, asking if they could contact me on my website. “I am going through some stuff,” one whispered to me. “I have to talk to you.”

So am I vulgar or honest?  Is the book trashy or valuable? Should educators trust their kids to read and discuss uncomfortable books or should they stick to the classics and call it a day?

Getting the news that I'd won the Kaywell Award!

Getting the news that I’d won the Kaywell Award!

When Dr. Joan Kaywell first told me last year that I’d won this award, I was honored but also a little scared. It’s a big banner to put on a book and an author:  This book can save a life?  That’s a big responsibility, and I was shy about thinking of Yaqui in this way because I know that sometimes books alone won’t be enough. We need courageous adults and compassionate, informed teens to help save lives, too.

Cori Williams and Brittany Chavez of the Garland Public Library

Cori Williams and Brittany Chavez of the Garland Public Library

So as I head to Tampa and Austin, all of these experiences are still swirling inside me. Sure, I got a dose of momentary shame, but I also got confirmation about the urgent need to stand with the beautiful young people I meet all the time. They’re living complicated lives, and they need us to have faith in them.

When I walk across the stage on Tuesday, I’ll be thinking of the kids in Arkansas and the teachers and librarians who care about them. I’m going to carry with me the girl who has “stuff going on,” the one who draws in a notebook to cope, the kids who hide in the library to avoid the lunchroom at all costs. I’m going to carry all of that – with my held held high. Thank you, University of South Florida and the Florida Council of Teachers of English for what is going to be a beautiful day.

Meg’s schedule at the Texas Book Festival













img-thingFall in New York City. I smile just thinking about it, especially when I add banned books and Latino lit to the reasons I’ll be there this week.

I hope you can join me for any one of these stops:


I found this on their Tumblr page. Looks gorgeous, no?

Tuesday, Sept 29, 7:30 PM, HousingWorks Bookstore Cafe in Greenwich Village, where all proceeds go directly to fighting AIDS and homelessness. I’ll be talking banned books with David Levithan and Coe Booth, both of whom have been caught in the iron jaws of censorship, too. I’ll share experiences about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass as it applies to soft censorship. (How many polite ways are there to get between a kid and a controversial book?  Turns out, a whole lot.) Looking forward,  I’m already bracing for the reaction to my upcoming novel, Burn, Baby, Burn (March 2016.) If the disco music and violence don’t incite my critics, then girls and birth control surely will. Uh-oh.

6D_bvMJZThursday, Oct 1, 3:30 PM the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, 239 Greene Street, room 302. As part of their 125 year anniversary celebration, the Steinhardt School is hosting a year-long children’s literature lecture series. My talk is called: What’s Our Story: The role of culturally sensitive books in the lives of multilingual families. Seating is limited, but if you’re a professor, teacher, librarian, or future educator with an interest in multilingual education, contact Kendra Tyson at for information.

Cristina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban...etc.) is this year's keynote speaker at Las Comadres.

Cristina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban…etc.) is this year’s keynote speaker at Las Comadres.

Saturday, October 3, 9 AM – 5 PM, Las Comadres Writer’s Conference, The New School, 55 W 13th Street, New York NY 10011.  So much has been said about the need to mentor new voices in all areas of publishing. Las Comadres is a conference that’s doing something about it. Now in its fourth year, the conference brings published Latino authors to work with new writers who are interested in careers in the literary arts. It’s a great place to make connections and get basic information on how to navigate the industry. I’ve been asked to offer the same children’s book presentation as last year, but I’m updating with the things I’ve learned after a year on the road. Here’s how to register. 

Okay, gotta dash. See you in the city!

Cariños de,


It’s coming up on October, a tough month for those of us who despise being terrified. What can I tell you? Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin did me in when I was a teen, and I don’t think I ever recovered.

Anyway, here’s a quick list of titles (old and new) that I’ve loved anyway for their nudge toward all things ghostly and wise.

Picture books

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Middle Grade/ YA

6a00d83451584369e200e54f7d4a268834-800wi18070700 71Vwvp8-XfL9780545162074_p3_v1_s523x595(I just couldn’t leave Harry Potter out…)




MANGO_jacket_for_Meg copyToday is the book birthday for Mango, Abuela and Me – my second picture book, so sweetly illustrated by the talented Angela Dominguez.  So far, so good. It has earned very nice reviews and mentions, including stars in Booklist and PW. Plus, I got word last week that it has gone into its first reprinting, so I’m thrilled, to say the least.

This time around, I’m delaying the launch a couple of weeks until Sunday, September 13, 2015, 1 PM – 3 PM. That’s when my pal, Gigi Amateau (Two for Joy) and I will do a joint book event at bbgb in Carytown to celebrate our new books and, even more important, National Grandparents Day.

According to USA Today, more than 4.9 million kids in America are being raised by their grandparents, a number that basically doubled since 2000. That wasn’t exactly the case for Gigi and me, but our grandmothers helped raise us just the same, and we love them for it. Our own grandmothers are gone, but Grammy, Abuela Bena and Abuela Fefa continue to make impact on us as women, mothers, and authors.

Bena on her wedding day in 1925

Bena on her wedding day in 1925

Benita Metauten was my mother’s mother. She had an eighth grade education and rolled cigars for a living in her family’s small enterprise. She would eventually marry a bicycle salesman, have four children, and find herself in the US. When she arrived from Cuba in 1968 –her nerves in tatters – I wasn’t sure I’d like her. The worried look on her face and the nervous hives that covered her feet frightened me. She became my babysitter after school, though, and our relationship grew. I began to enjoy her strange obsession with Lucha Libre wrestling on  TV, as well as the countless stories of her life in Cuba, stories most people wouldn’t tell a five-year-old:  grisly hurricane deaths, infidelity scandals in her old town, a man who tied up his daughter when she misbehaved, the day my uncle was sent to prison for trying to leave Cuba illegally.  She had no filter, but maybe that’s why I loved her. And more, it was Bena who knew how to cook a proper lechón in our family, and Bena who showed me how to look carefully for rocks in the dry beans and how to use a wine bottle instead of a rolling pin on empanada dough.

Unfortunately, it was also Bena whose anxieties about life in this new country eventually kept my aunts and mother from taking risks on new jobs and better opportunities. If Bena wanted anything in this life at all, it was security and safety, and she would get them at anyone’s expense. She was gentle but she ruled others through her worry and doubt – never a good combination. Over time, her anxieties worsened, so that by the time she was 98 and bedridden, we were all swallowed up in her care. No one could stray far from her bedside without her panicking.

Bena with cotorraStill, in better times, I enjoyed her. It was this grandmother for whom I bought a small parrot one day  at Woolworths. I loved animals, of course, but it was also a little offering to help her feel better about missing Cuba and the beautiful pet parrot she had left behind. That act would be the tiny seed that grew into the manuscript for Mango, Abuela and Me.

Not that the book is all Bena. I had another grandmother, too, whom I fondly recall as the General. Shades of her are in Mango, Abuela and Me, as well. Josefa Medina, known as Fefa, was my father’s mother, and she was another sort of abuela altogether. Sometimes we have grandmothers that we don’t know as well or even ones that make us feel uncomfortable. For a long time, that was Fefa for me.


Fefa and me in Queens. She made me that stylish maxi dress

Fefa and me in Queens. She made me that stylish maxi dress

Fefa was clear-eyed, tough, and unsentimental. But she was undoubtably one of the smartest and most moral women I ever knew. It was fascinating to watch her move through the world. She had only a sixth grade education, but what she lacked in formal schooling, she more than made up for in practical sense, dignity, perseverance, and a sense of duty. Her own life had started out with poverty and family troubles. (She and her siblings were dispersed among far-flung relatives when her father realized he couldn’t feed them. She was married at 14 and a mother of two by age 16, a fact that still pains me when I think about it.) But these hard experiences made her determined to build a stable family. She raised my father, who became a doctor, and my aunt, who went on to become a pharmacist.

Fefa disapproved of my parents’ marriage – sure that it would never work. She even stubbornly boycotted their wedding. But a few years later, she was utterly mortified by their divorce and was heartsick over what it might mean for my sister and me. She responded by insisting on staying involved in our lives. A seamstress in New York’s garment district, she would sew my annual wardrobe and deliver it every June for my birthday – a huge economic relief for my mother. Shorts, dresses, pants suits – each piece was laid out on my bed with pride so that it could be photographed and admired. It was even Fefa who bought me my first bikini at Ohrbachs in New York when I was thirteen. It was a day-glo orange and yellow number – certainly skimpy by her standards. I still remember how her eye twitched in disapproval when I stepped out of the dressing room. She had promised me a bathing suit, though, and Fefa was always good on her word.

My birthday wardrobe stash from Fefa

My birthday wardrobe stash from Fefa

Still, in daily interactions, there was nothing soft about my grandmother, and she scared me. She was an iron-fisted woman who demanded things her way. This was not an adult to whom you could confess your hate of tomatoes in your salad, for example. You ate them and shut up. And worse, she didn’t really appreciate my brand of girl. Fefa had antiquated and unshakable ideas about femininity, – a fact that was so suffocating as a kid. I was never allowed to play outside with my cousin Diego and his band of rough boys when I visited, for instance. I’d have to sit on the stoop miserably while they played tag all around me.

But maybe life wears down everyone’s rough edges eventually. This was certainly true for Fefa. Years into my adulthood – after I had become a mother and lived nearby with her great-grandchildren in Florida – Fefa and I finally seemed to soften toward each other. Maybe I had finally started to realize how the harsh events of her life had shaped her. Or maybe she took pity seeing me juggle three little kids and a career. I don’t know the exact catalyst, but there was definitely a change. And while I can’t say I was ever her favorite grandchild, I think in the end she saw that the wild child with knots in her hair and scabby knees had managed to turn out all right after all. When I hold this book, I wonder if maybe she’d even be proud to know that I thought of her and Bena on every page.

Holy communion with las abuelas_NEW

My holy communion day with Fefa and Bena

All of my books explore family in one way or another. Maybe that’s my life’s work, who knows? The dynamics of people who love each other deeply and sometimes hurt each other anyway is endlessly interesting to me. With Mango, Abuela and Me, I think even the youngest reader can relate to feeling tentative about a grandparent or feeling a divide, whether it’s language that is the obstacle or something else. But I hope families who come to this story also discover the strength to be found when we connect across the generations of our families. That’s what I found out, anyway. We learn our own story by learning the story of all those imperfect people who came before us. We take our place inside the long, unfolding tale of our own people.


Can’t make the official launch event? Signed copies of Mango, Abuela and Me are available starting today at Chop Suey Books at 2913 W Cary Street, RVA.  Call Ward and let him know you’d like to have one! 804 422 8066 or e-mail

CLICK to see trailer:


11193381_392733620920999_5592796247599447170_nFor more than two decades, Margarita Engle has produced award-winning work for children of all ages. Among her many distinctions, she is a multiple recipient of the Pura Belpré medal, the Américas Award, and the Jane Addams Award. She is also the first Latina author to have earned a Newbery Honor Award for her 2008 novel-in-verse, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.

enchanted-air-9781481435222_hrMargarita has long been known for impeccable research and thoughtful books that shine new light on figures in history. But her new project goes inward. Her memoir-in-verse, Enchanted Air (Simon and Schuster,) arrives in book stores this week. Here at the dawn of the United States’s new relationships with Cuba, Margarita tells us about her book, her own relationship to Cuba, and what it means to write from the heart. 


When we speak of reciting poems “by heart,” we mean “from memory.”

That is because memories live in the heart, in emotions, in a past that remains swirled together with the present and future. Memories are the one place where time is defeated by love.


Margarita and her mother

Writing about one’s own childhood is a process of writing by heart. There are no guidelines, no patterns to follow, no research to depend on, no papery or digital maps of the mind. When I decided to write ENCHANTED AIR, Two Cultures, Two Wings, all I had was my own memories, and the emotions they still contain, long after adulthood has made an unusual childhood seem like someone else’s strange, impossible life.

I wrote this memoir in the form of free verse—and in present tense—in order to bring the memories back to the surface, an experience I have always dreaded, and never thought I would want to share in public, where I am guaranteed to cry when I read the poems out loud.

My reasons for writing a memoir are various, depending on what the reader brings to my pages:

Enchanted Air is a celebration of the role of travel in a child’s education.

Enchanted Air is a plea for peace and family reconciliation.

Enchanted Air is an act of empathy for stateless people.

Enchanted Air is a true story meant to speak directly to bicultural children, and to the adults who try to understand us.

Yes, I do mean ‘us,’ not ‘them,’ because with respect to this aspect of childhood, I still carry it around inside my heart, like a series of linked poems. Bicultural children can feel divided or doubled, claiming both the daily self and the invisible twins we turn into when we cross the border between our two parents’ homelands.

I am not a typical Cuban-American, and I don’t presume to speak for those who are. I am neither a refugee nor an exile. As the California-born daughter of an American father and Cuban mother, I was blessed with the chance to visit relatives on the island both before and after the revolution. Now, as Enchanted Air goes into print, I worry about how it will be perceived in Miami, but it is my own true story, my only true story, the first time I have tackled a post-revolutionary topic in any of my books for young readers. I hope they will accept it in the spirit in which it is offered, as a testament to that very word: HOPE.

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Guiseppe Castellano

Guiseppe Castellano

A while back, I had the pleasure of being on the SCBWI faculty in Atlanta where I met Guiseppe Castellano, Art Director for Penguin Random House.

I’ve been making a habit of hanging out at illustrator sessions these days even though I have absolutely zero skill in the visual arts. (Why God, why?) I go for the same reason I like to see dance performances: to be amazed by the talents of other people and to broaden my own toolbox for storytelling. There’s a lot to be learned about narrative if you strip out words. You learn to see, I think, how to use negative space – what is NOT said – to your advantage.

Anyway, Guiseppe is offering some good advice on his blog about how to make the most of your SCBWI experience, and he includes thoughts from a range of spiffy speakers, like Arthur Levine, Pat Cummings, and others. I’m in there, too, speaking on how to make the most of both serving as faculty and as an attendee.

Check him out and follow him on Twitter @pinocastellano.

Happy reading!


IMG_0186I’m heading over to Pine Camp on July 2 for the opening reception of “Two Seas Merging,” which features the work of Cuban artist Salvador González Escalona. The reception is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m, and the show runs until the end of the month.

FullSizeRenderFrom the press release: “A self-taught mixed medium master artist, González Escalona, with the help of campers enrolled in the Great Summer Escape camp at Pine Camp, just completed painting a mural titled Two Seas Merging, which symbolizes the cultural diversity of the Afro-Cuban connection.”

If your Spanish is strong, here he is in Cuba discussing his mural work in Callejón de Hamel , where he used African religious imagery on a community mural project – remarkable since it was initiated during a particularly repressive time.

Spotlight Gallery hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. This exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information or to schedule a tour please call Shaunn Casselle at 646-6722. For more information about these projects, please call 646-3677.”



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