Author Meg Medina Talks About Writing Villains

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Meg Medina knows how to connect. When she writes, her words crackle with strong storytelling and believable characters. When she stands at a microphone, her Cuban-American-inflected vitality will reduce you to tears—of laughter. You can imagine how much her young readers love her. So do we! And we’re delighted to present an interview with Meg about her latest book.

First, here’s an introduction to her earlier work. She’s the author of a picture book, Tía Isa Wants a Car, winner of the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award; a middle-grade novel, Milagros: Girl from Away; and a previous novel for young adults, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.

Tia Isa Wants a Car      Milagros: Girl from Away      The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind

Meg’s most recent contribution to YA bookshelves is the Kirkus starred Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, 2013), a gripping story set in Queens, NY, where sophomore Piddy Sanchez lands after a crosstown move. Readers come to know Piddy at her best and worst, as she grapples with a new high school environment. Let’s just say that everything gets dicier when she enters a bully’s lair.

What can we learn from Meg’s gift for storytelling? For one thing, she writes with a keen eye toward characterization. Her eponymous villain, Yaqui Delgado, is a craft lesson on legs. Happily, Meg has agreed to unpack a bit of her villain-making magic for us.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Meg, thank you for talking to us about craft. Your novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass puts the protagonist in a terrible bind. Before we discuss Yaqui, can you give us a better sense of who Piddy is and how she lands in this fix?

Meg: Unfortunately, Piddy is at a new school. Essentially, she’s the little gazelle that got separated from the herd. Never good. Up until that point, she’s an ordinary girl. She’s bright, engaged in school, but like lots of us at 16, she’s struggling with her mother and is starting to question the choices her parents have made. The fact that she gets targeted is purely random. A horrible fact of bullying is that it has very little to do with the victim. Kids can get bullied for virtually any reason…for being smart or for being slow; for being unattractive or for being too attractive; for being poor or for having too much money. The reason for the attack usually resides in what makes the bully nervous or insecure. Kids can easily forget that. It’s easy to internalize the message that they are in some way a loser.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: You give readers a wicked combination of physical and cyber-bullying. How did you become interested in girl bullies? Can you share tips about using hot-button issues in fiction?

Meg: To be honest, I don’t think about hot button issues to write about. They change too quickly! In this case, I had been invited to write a short story for an anthology about Latinas as a turning point in their lives. As I thought about turning points in my own life, I decided to base the story on a bullying incident I lived through long ago, mostly because it made such a lasting negative impact on how I saw myself and how I moved through the world. The anthology project died, but my editor at Candlewick asked me to turn the story into a novel. I layered in new characters and dimensions that hadn’t been part of the story, and I added in the details that are part of bullying today, such as YouTube and social media.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Yaqui fits a certain type of inner-city bad girl that many of us know only from the movies, but by the end of the story, she’s achieved a dimensional status that satisfies and amazes. What was your process like for keeping Yaqui from collapsing into stereotype?

Meg: I really just concentrated on writing the truth about my own bully long ago. My feelings were a strange mix of hatred, dread, and admiration for all her power. The fact is, no one is all good or bad, and the gloriously bad character is often charismatic or fearless in a way that’s really interesting. Also, no one behaves so violently or poorly without a reason. We don’t have to excuse a character’s awful behavior, but it helps to understand it. I dabbed all of those things on Yaqui as a character to make her compelling, and to make her a worthy foe.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Through much of the story, Yaqui remains aloof and doesn’t enter Piddy’s space until the right moment. Your portrayal of her evokes a wolf silhouetted against the moon. Chilling. Please share more about enhancing dread through this technique.

Meg: Well, dread is actually the perfect word. I worked on dread inside Piddy as character and inside the reader. For the reader, watching Yaqui circle closer is like watching the fin cut through the surface of the water behind a swimmer at the beach. Oh no! Something horrible is coming, but you can’t stop it. In this case, it’s not an ocean, but a school and neighborhood, places where we think we ought to be safe. In terms of building dread inside of Piddy, I tried to recreate the feelings we might have when we’re in a room or social situation with someone we really dislike. Think of how that goes: You avoid eye contact. You try your best to think of something else, to look calm, to avoid the spot where that person is standing. But all you can think of is that person and the awkwardness of being nearby. Their presence becomes oppressive.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: There’s a powerful scene where Piddy begins to adopt Yaqui’s look. She pulls her hair back into a severe bun and plucks her brows to a thin line. She puts on dark lipstick and steps back to admire her handiwork as “expressionless and strangely vicious.” It’s a horrifying turn of events. Can you talk about pushing your protagonist this close to the edge of villainy?

Meg: Pain can lead us to some terrible places. In Piddy’s case, she tries on the Yaqui costume, so to speak, as a way to explore and protect herself. If you’re scary and vicious, who will bother you? I took her to that edge because as a writer you always make sure the stakes are very high for your character. I was after a problem that threatened her very sense of who she was, a problem so tangled that an easy answer was hard for her – and for the reader – to solve.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Piddy’s best friend, Mitzi, has moved, too. She’s blossoming in the paradise of the suburbs and is mostly unavailable to Piddy. She reminds us of what Piddy’s life used to be. What else does sweet Mitzi contribute? What do apprentice writers need to know about using secondary characters for the benefit of the story’s arc?

Meg: Yes, Mitzi definitely shows us the “old” Piddy. She wasn’t in my first draft except in that sentence that refers to Piddy’s friend moving away. But as I worked on the manuscript, I built up scenes to show the old Piddy and also to keep a path open for the way back. I also liked how she worked as yet another version of a normal Latina girl: brainy, scientific, sports-impaired, middle class.

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Meg, mil gracias! We celebrate your achievements in Latin@ kid lit and look forward to your next book!

To learn more about Meg’s work, the latest on her author appearances and much more of interest to readers and writers, please visit and follow her blog.

One comment on “Author Meg Medina Talks About Writing Villains

  1. I’ve already hollered from the rooftops how much I loved YAQUI D…, but it’s a special treat to get to have Meg here on the blog. Thanks for all the insights on your work! I loved that scene where Piddy plucks her eyebrows, which for me resonated as a demonstration of how aggression (even Yaqui’s) is itself a kind of protection. While we don’t get a close look at Yaqui’s life and her actions are undeniably cruel, this scene underscored (for me) that at some point she slipped into a defensive performance that evolved into her public self.

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