Meg Medina was bullied in junior high school. The girl never assaulted her physically, but she harassed Medina, who noted, “It was a horrific experience.” In Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, April, 2013; Gr 7 Up), 15-year-old Piddy Sanchez doesn’t even know her aggressor and it’s unclear why Yaqui has targeted Piddy—it may be that Yaqui’s boyfriend commented on Piddy’s arrival as a transfer student to their school. “You can be bullied for any reason. For being too smart, too developed, too beautiful, too artistic,” said Medina. “It comes down to what enrages the person who’s doing the bullying. As soon as you stand out in any way, it becomes a liability.”
You really get to the heart of bullying—that it’s often the fear of violence, as much as actual violence, that devastates the victim. Yaqui doesn’t even appear on the page until several chapters in. How did you accomplish that?
I had to make a decision about whose story it was going to be. I could have devoted an entire novel to Yaqui. That need to be so destructive doesn’t happen by accident. Yaqui may have even emerged as a sympathetic character. But I wanted to write the story of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a bully’s treatment. When you have a conflict with someone, it’s like radioactive energy is in the room. All you can think about is that person’s presence. It crowds out everything else.
And then Piddy’s friends fall away; they don’t want to be guilty by association.
There’s so much fear about being an outcast in school, of being the lone zebra that the lion will take down. It sucks everything out of a person, most of all the person’s sense of self-worth. Piddy wants to be a scientist. But the bullying takes away her sense of self and she starts making risky decisions, and begins spiraling down. That was difficult to write; it was hard to watch the Piddy suffer.
Piddy’s observation seemed in part to underscore her sense of alienation: “Yaqui and me, we should be two hermanas, a sisterhood of Latinas…instead, we’re worlds apart.” Tell us more about that.
In the United States, we’re Latinos. Everywhere else, we’re Cubans, or Ecuadorans, or Dominicans. I think within the community there exists lots of stereotyping. If you are bookish, or light-skinned, are you a Latina? When you think of a Latino look, most people think we have this one look, but of course, …we’re talking about a diverse group of people, by education, by economic class. (The topic has come up on Twitter quite a bit lately.)
Piddy’s often defending herself as a Latina. The notion of violence—certainly the level that Piddy’s on the receiving end of—comes from a place of rage, wanting to hurt, wanting to put down. Yaqui is lacking some important traits in terms of compassion and empathy.
Is that part of the reason why Piddy returns to her childhood friend Joey, in her old neighborhood—for some sympathy? He’s a complicated character.
There’s an innocence in Piddy and Joey’s relationship that begins to get mixed up in the sexual. Joey’s such a ball of wax. Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? I think at his core, this is a boy who wants to be good, and who wants to be a good friend, but he’s so pulled by everything he’s seen [and everything that's going on in his life]. I wanted to highlight the razor’s edge that exists for the two of them—when we begin to leave our childhood behind and our relationships suddenly begin to change; we start to look at them through a different lens.
Are there challenges particular to a novel, versus picture books such as your Tía Isa Wants a Car (Candlewick, 2011)?
With picture books, I think of poetry…. With a young adult novel, I’m really just following the character. It can be an inefficient way to write. I think, well that got me nowhere. Some people have an idea for plot and then populate it. What’s infinitely interesting to me is the person, and then how the person reacts.
What I also wondered was, won’t readers have questions about Yaqui, and how much do I want to say about her? What’s the risk of bringing her in? I thought she was too big, too rich a character. It allowed me to have a laser-like focus on Piddy. Maybe I haven’t forgiven the girl who bullied me.
So many times we wanted Piddy to confide in someone—her mother or her mother’s best friend, Lila.
I think we ask a lot of kids, to trust the adults to help them figure out some of their problems. There’s no way one of the adults in Piddy’s life could have followed her around and kept her safe. In the end, readers see that a girl can be pulled into a situation she has little control over; she can make terrible mistakes and still come out OK on the other side. That’s important for teens to know. Many of us think that the mistakes we make are permanent, that they mark us for life. That doesn’t happen to Piddy.
This article was featured in School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered every month for free.