It all starts with a buzz that high school student Piddy shrugs off – “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass!” She doesn’t even know Yaqui so why would she want to fight with Piddy? It’s probably a case of mistaken identity or no big deal. And, anyway, what’s the worst this total stranger could do?
This is the start of Meg Medina’s powerful Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass, one of my favorite YA books of 2013. I’ve been in love with this book since it was first released back in March. It’s received four starred reviews. I’ve booktalked it to my teens, featured it in my displays, and promoted it on our library’s teen Facebook page because I think it’s truly special. Why? Before anything else, what a delight to see a diverse cast of characters dealing with a universal story – this is always such a treat in YA.
Next is the way Medina structures the escalation of bullying. Rarely, if ever, have I read a book that so accurately portrays the intensity and the slow build and burn of high school bullying. I want to pull my hair out when I read stories about teenagers who are bullied and see school administration responding with “Well, but does it happen on campus?” As if the insidiousness of bullying doesn’t follow teens; sink into every moment of their life, as if saying that gets administrators off the hook for not helping teens. Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass is flat-out brilliant at showing how bullying isn’t the kind of thing teenagers can just walk away from, even when they try. Medina knows that bullying is a campaign of harassment that builds and builds – that’s what happens to Piddy. She thinks things with Yaqui are silly or, at least, can be ignored. But they can’t – Yaqui isn’t going away, if anything she is escalating her behavior against Piddy.
This escalation, and this understanding of bullying behavior, gives Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass not just a claustrophobic sense of reality but also makes it a page-turner. As Piddy looks for a way out, Medina uses this as a way to let us into Piddy’s whole world; her interactions with her mother, her burgeoning relationship with a boy, and the way this bullying blows apart her well-ordered life. You’re rooting for Piddy but you, like her, are also not sure what the “right” solution is. Again, what a beautiful lifeline in literature Medina has created here: she doesn’t lie to the young readers of this book, she doesn’t make it seem as simple as “Piddy should just tell!” That would only be the beginning of a whole new set of problems – Piddy knows that and so will teens. Understanding this, unraveling this pain, is more than that and this book doesn’t shy away from that truth. It’s what makes it work and it’s what makes it unique.
This is a very good book, a special book, and, yes, in some spots a very hard book to read. But it’s also the kind of book I think can matter in teen’s lives – help them actually see the shockwaves of bullying, help them know they aren’t the only person who has felt their whole life spin out over something they can’t control, maybe even help them feel not just a little empathy but a little less alone in a dark time.
This is also a book that, you may notice, has the word ASS in the title. Which, ostensibly, is what got Meg Medina uninvited from speaking at a middle school in Virginia. I say ostensibly because, while I am sure the word ASS was part of it? I also know that it was something deeper – it was the way books like Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass make adults uncomfortable – the way it makes them confront the dark realities of life as an adolescent. Those are scary things for adults to have to face and those are the kind of things that pull books off shelves and out of children’s hands.
It’s words like ass and it’s worlds where girls you don’t even know can determine to make your life a living nightmare while adults in your world stand powerless that make books disappear from public and school library shelves. A challenge here, an uninvited author there, a concerned parent with a letter to a principal, a board – these things not just erode the intellectual freedom of children and teens but take something life-saving, life-changing from them – books, stories, words, a hand in the dark.
THIS is why we, librarians, educators, teachers, writers, fight challenges and raise awareness about them. It’s why we want to get people talking about them and being outraged about them and fighting them. That’s why we have BANNED BOOKS WEEK.
We do not, make no mistake, celebrate Banned Books Week. Throw that out the window. We celebrate a commitment to defending intellectual freedom, we celebrate the fight, we celebrate everyone who does not go quietly. We do this because we want you, the general public, we want you to know this is happening all over this country and it MATTERS.
I wanted to boost the signal on what happened to Meg Medina and what it reveals to us about how easily books are pulled away from the very readers who might need them the most. I wanted this year’s Banned Books Week to be a time for all of us, from those of us active in this field to the friends you have on Facebook who shared that video of the cat librarian in Russia, to let people know that challenges like this are happening all across this country and we do not agree and we will not be silent.
This Banned Books Week: Stand up for Yaqui Delgado.
Take this pledge with me:
We will talk about challenges, about climates that discourage intellectual freedom. We will share it. We will be outraged about it, we will encourage others to be outraged about it. We will tell the story of how books matter, about what they can do for teens. Moreover: we will tell teens about these books. We will BUY THE BOOKS. We will ask the libraries in our communities, the public libraries and the school libraries, to BUY THE BOOKS for our communities. We will not let all the readers who see their story in Piddy’s story be silenced and made invisible. We will insist their voices count.
To further boost the signal, I also reached out to Meg to see if she would do an interview with me about what happened and what she’s learned from it. She graciously agreed and then gave me some amazing, insightful answers. Tomorrow, to continue this campaign to stand up for Yaqui, I will not only post the interview, but everyone who comments will have a chance to win a hardcover copy of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass AND a signed copy of Meg’s novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.
Let’s boost the signal. Let’s raise our voices.