That fall day in Queens is one Meg Medina will never forget.
She was in junior high school when a girl in a rabbit fur coat approached her and uttered seven words that would stick for a lifetime: "Jackie Delgado wants to kick your ass."
Although they'd never met, Medina knew who Delgado was: a girl so tough she slathered Vaseline over her face before a fight so her victims couldn't get a grip on her.
Ultimately, the two never came to physical blows, but emotional scars remained of the barrage of threats that Medina endured for months.
Now 50, the Richmond writer gave voice to that experience in March through the fictional "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" (Candlewick). When Piedad "Piddy" Sanchez and her mother move to a new neighborhood, Piddy is forced to transfer to the tough Daniel Jones High School. There, the fearsome Yaqui Delgado takes an immediate hatred to her and sets out to make Piddy's life miserable. While Yaqui's bullying escalates, Piddy's life starts to spiral out of control.
Sensitively and realistically told, Medina's portrayal of a teenager dealing with bullying while coming to terms with her own identity and place in the world will strike a chord with many. Although written for the young adult set, "Yaqui Delgado" is equally compelling for adults — it's hard to put down.
One of the most refreshing parts of the book is Piddy herself, who tells her story with a sometimes-heartbreaking honesty. Medina doesn't pull many punches, and although Piddy's courage may waver at times, readers will find themselves rooting on her behalf while she faces circumstances that would terrify most of us.
"It's really interesting to me to see girls develop," Medina says. "I love to put a Latina character — a strong female — right there at the center of everything."
Making sure that Latinos are included in young adult literature is a mission close to Medina's heart, but one that can be discouraging. Despite the nation's growing Latino population, the group isn't well represented in current literature. According to statistics collected by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, of a sample of 3,600 children's books published in 2012, only 59 were by a Latino author and only 54 were about Latinos.
"There's this big disconnect between this growing number of students who are Latino and what is available to them," Medina says.
It's a gap that Medina is helping to fill with her writing, which includes a middle grade novel, another young adult novel and a picture book. An active member of the local young adult community, she and fellow Richmond writer Gigi Amateau have teamed up to produce the Girls of Summer list, which provides young readers with 18 titles that feature strong female characters. In the fall, Medina also participate in Teen '13, an event celebrating young adult literature, as part of the Virginia Literary Festival.
The young readers, however, remain Medina's focus. She recalls a discussion with her editor about her new book's in-your-face title. Medina feared the problems that might result from including profanity on the cover — but her editor kept arguing.
"She said, 'Are you writing this for the counselors, the parents, the teachers — or are you writing this for the girl who's still afraid to go to the bathroom at school?'" Medina recalls. "And that was it — that was really the deciding factor."
She doesn't regret the choice, especially given the book's tough subject matter and realistic tone. "We ask kids all the time to trust the adults in their lives," she says. "And yet they can't trust us to even name those experiences that are happening."
In "Yaqui Delgado," name them she does. And if the dozens of readers of all ages who have approached Medina at book events to tell her tales of being bullied are any evidence, that act of speaking out, even in a fictional context, is an important one.
"Some days, I wrote it white-knuckled," Medina says. "It was really sad to remember how frightened I was. But the beautiful part of writing is that I got to write in the people I wished had been there. The writing is sort of a healing thing in that way." S