Episode 29! Conversation with Meg Medina
Welcome to episode nineteen of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Meg Medina discusses her essay "Money" (which can be heard HERE) with Jacqueline Davies. Meg and Jacqueline discuss the many layers of money matters that affects women writers, especially women of color.
On today's Podcast you will hear:
Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction. She is the author of the YA novels Burn Baby Burn, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. Her picture books include Mango, Abuela and Me, and Tía Isa Wants a Car. Her most recent middle grade novel, published by Candlewick Press in September 2018, is Merci Suarez Changes Gears.
Meg’s work examines how cultures intersect, as seen through the eyes of young people. When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.
Jacqueline Davies is the talented author of YA and middle grade novels as well as picture books. Her beloved The Lemonade War series, tells the story of a brother and sister who make a bet to see who can sell the most lemonade in five days. The second book in the series is The Lemonade Crime; the third book is The Bell Bandit; the fourth is The Candy Smash; and the fifth and final book in the series in The Magic Trap. Her newest book Nothing But Trouble (HarperCollins, 2016) tells the story of two smart girls in a small town who can't help but get into trouble by pulling pranks. See more about Jacqueline at her website.
JACQUELINE: Nice to have you with us. We're really happy to be talking about your essay today, "KidLitWomen: Money." I got to tell you this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart because I find myself like you and your essay often talking to other authors and illustrators about money in the children's publishing business. I'm really excited to get into it with you.
MEG: Well, thanks. When I was thinking of a title for it, I was thinking of all these pithy ways to talk about it and then I said, you know what, I'm just going to use the word because it carries so many connotations, money.
JACQUELINE: Exactly. It's like so bold and in your face. It's like, we're not going to sugarcoat it. We're not going to use any euphemisms here. We're talking about money, and I loved that. I mean, and that was so much of what was in your essay. Kind of this just straight up talk about what makes this difficult. I'd love to get into it and hear your further thoughts on some of it. You start the essay with such a beautiful story about your mother and your aunts and the kind of work that they did. In a way how their experience and the way you grew up, you came away it seems like with two lessons. One was a beautiful lesson about female cooperation, the way they pooled their money, they covered one another in a pinch, and worked their financial magic, and that's a lovely thing to carry forward. But the other one was that money could be used as the measure of our value. I wonder if you'd just talk a little bit more about that part of the lesson.
MEG: Well, you know, it was a really conflicting approach to money because on the one hand as we all know, we need it to live for the basics, right? For the rent or food. There was always this worry about whether there was going to be enough, how we were going to cover x or y, what we do if somebody got sick, those emergency things. The flip side is that in this country, money is used to define someone's status, right? Or their success. The things that they're able to buy, the life that they're able to provide for themselves, even the money they are able to give away, all of that signals your success. My family at that time, we couldn't participate in that of course, because we had none. Logic, you had no value and that would have driven you crazy.
MEG: I had this really complicated relationship with money that this obsession with having it for our basic security and also this shunning of it. This notion that it was a shallow measure that it really didn't reflect who you were as a person, which was really the important thing. I think I still hold those things and I don't think that's necessarily wrong. I do think it's ridiculous to assign a person value based on what their net worth is. I also feel like, I walked away from childhood with this really uncomfortable notion about how I would intersect with money.
JACQUELINE: Do you think that this is a particularly American measuring stick? I remember that after college when I lived in Europe for a couple of years, not only did nobody talk about their jobs, but there just wasn't the same sense of how much you made in some way decided whether you were a worthy person or not. It was truly irrelevant. Do you think this is something that Americans have come up with?
MEG: I don't know. It wouldn't surprise me, but I've lived here my whole life. I was born here, so I have no really good way to compare it. What I would say is that it's very slippery slope. It's a very dangerous thing to fall into. We have phrases for Keeping Up with the Joneses. We have an entire marketing universe is dedicated to feeding on that insecurity and that definition of our success. As it applies to women, of course, I feel like that as we move through our careers and as our jobs change, our economic status changes, all of that. We were in knots about these things and when I wrote the essay I was really just hoping to help just share how conflicted I was and just give practical ways to ask for money, talk about money without feeling one like you're a sellout. Also, without betraying the things that really do matter to you, the things that are not about money.
JACQUELINE: To hold both those things at the same time that money does have meaning and also that there are other things that also have great meaning in our lives. They're not contradictory. It's not like one excludes the other. You talk about the script that runs through your head. I love this part. I love this part of the piece and I'm just going to extract a little bit of it. These are the things that go through your mind. I do think that much of what we're talking about today is peculiar to women. I do think women feel it more acutely, but here's the extraction from the script. "Don't complain. Be grateful. Talking about money is tacky and money is meaningless," and then that special hook at the end that what we do, children's publishing, it's for the kids, the kids. I'm going to put the kids in quotes because that's something that we hear so often. "Oh, you're doing it for the kids. Oh, it's for the kids. Why should you need to be paid? You're doing this for the kids."
MEG: It gets you every time.
JACQUELINE: It gets you every time and I do think that that's a hook. This particularly finds its way into women writers and illustrators perhaps more than into men. I wonder if it gets used on women more often or if it simply has more of an effect.
MEG: Yeah. I don't know. I can only say that it has a strange effect on me and that of course you know, just traditionally the whole caretaker role, right? The role of the maternal, of the nurturing, of being the backbone of how we raise children to be good adults, and thinking adults and successful people. We all want to share that. It's our most altruistic sense, right?
JACQUELINE: Absolutely, absolutely.
MEG: That gets logged out there, but I think that it's also possible that I think people assume that the male authors are the, "bread winners of their family," which is absolutely not necessarily the case. This notion that they're doing it maybe for their kids, right, for their families and so on. I just feel like sometimes I'm asked to do things for free or people are surprised by a fee because we have this notion that because it's for kids, I ought to want to do it for free. I ought to want to do this on behalf of the greater good. I do some things for the greater good but the issue is that you want to be in control of that. You don't want to be taken advantage of because the fact is we do love what we do. We do love children, we love this country, we love children's publishing, et cetera, that is all true. Yet, this is also our profession, this is the way we pay our taxes and our mortgages and how we feed our own children and how we save for our retirement and all of the unsexy things, [inaudible 00:08:56] part of life.
MEG: I think we deserve to be paid for the artistry and the expertise that we bring into schools and into communities. It's not particular to writers. I think artists all over the place, dancers, spiritual artists. They're always asked to do things for free. I don't know if people thinks, "Oh gosh, that career is so fun. Just be grateful." [inaudible 00:09:27] sing or write or whatever for the day. I also just want to throw this out that I do think that there are librarians out there who are very conscious of this and who are very respectful. I don't feel like this is a-
JACQUELINE: Oh sure, yeah.
MEG: It does come up enough that I felt like, especially writers earlier in their career needed the heads up.
JACQUELINE: Right, right. Now, we were talking about other careers where this comes up. Can you bring up an excellent example and that recent ... It's a shocking story about how Michelle Williams, they were reshooting a movie. I believe as I recall it was about the fact that the movie had been shot, had not been fully edited yet or perhaps it had been edited and that they needed to rework it to remove, was it Kevin Spacey that they felt like they needed to take out of the movie?
JACQUELINE: Yes. Certain scenes needed to be reshot with the principals, Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg, the stars and that she agreed to do it for $80 a day, which I think was the union scale or something like that because it was presented to her as we need to save the movie, we need to save the hard work that so many people have done. So many people have done so much for this movie and we need to save this movie. It's the same sort of thing, isn't it? It's like, you need to give, you need to give of yourself for the greater good in the same way that sometimes it's presented of as ...
JACQUELINE: In the same way that's sometimes it's presented as, you know, share what you know and be with the kids for the greater good, but somehow that argument never seemed to have been presented to Mark Wahlberg, or if it was, he simply rejected it outright, and as you said, the same agent for the two of them ... one of them for Michelle Williams said, "Yes, $80 a day. That sounds fine." And for Mark Wahlberg, they said, "No, a million dollars" to do the same thing.
JACQUELINE: And we said ... there was something else recently about that, where "The Crown," the television show "The Crown," it was found out that Claire Foy, who was the Queen, was paid less than ... and I'm drawing a blank on his name, the actor who played Prince Philip. And you just have to ask yourself, "How does this get worked out?" I mean, who's making the offers and who's accepting the offers?
MEG: Right, which is why you have to do your research, and you have to get comfortable asking the hard questions about money-
MEG: -as a ... as [inaudible 00:12:08] author or illustrator, you just do.
MEG: And it feels terrible. My grandmother had a phrase, "tener pelo en la lengua." Means having hair on your tongue. You know that [crosstalk 00:12:19] it's like what-
JACQUELINE: I love that.
MEG: -is on my mouth, you know? Funny. Pero, you know, I think we have to get past that.
JACQUELINE: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:12:29] you talk about how money in publishing is a very opaque thing and that that doesn't work to our advantage.
JACQUELINE: And you talk about the opacity in terms of with agents, having difficult discussions with agents. What do you think about authors and illustrators talking one-on-one to each other, and sharing this difficult information because for the most part we don't. For the most part, we do not go around talking about what our advance is, what our royalty rates are, what's in our contracts. We don't have those conversations. Do you think that's an important way to go about this?
MEG: Well, I do, but okay, so I think that some people do. I'm very ... when I'm talking with authors, especially new Latinx authors, that's the first ques- within an hour of my meeting them, that question comes up. What should I charge-
JACQUELINE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
MEG: -for visits? What should I charge for conferences? What, what, what? And they have lots of questions about everything, and you know, nobody has all the answers. The only answer I have is what I have learned that, in my own experience and I'm happy to share it. And I will say that I had friends when I started publishing who were further along in their career who were very open with me about what they charge.
MEG: And I remember when they first gave me the number, I said, "What? Are you crazy? Who would pay me that? That's insane!" And you know, I had been a teacher for ten years also, and I had this guilt also associated in there. How dare I ask for much more money than a teacher who's there all day with the kids, giving and loving, and you know, et cetera, et cetera.
MEG: It was a very, very complicated wiring in there. But you learn the hard way. Oh my goodness, you learn the hard way because what ends up happening is that you undervalue yourself, and then you find out in a month and five, or in a year, that you know, same school, somebody else, got paid twice what you did or three times it, and you set the fee, right?
JACQUELINE: Right. Exactly.
MEG: You're being your own worst enemy. So I do think that there's value in authors and editors ... I'm sorry, authors and illustrators talking honestly with each other. I don't know that you have to put it on your web site if you're not comfortable. I mean I do think that there are some privacy issues, right? But I don't think that it's unfair to say, like when you're in conversation with someone or a new author reaches out to me, "Hi, I really have this question. Can you help me?" I've sent people my fee sheet, or I send them over to the Author Village which handles my bookings now to, you know to have the information.
MEG: It doesn't ... you know, and it's funny now because the person on the receiving end sometimes gives me the same wide-eyed look that I gave my friends, like "Are you crazy?" So what I would say is that your fees change, right? Of course, over time with your experience. Did you, you know, are there awards under your belt? Have you been on some best-selling list? Was there something, you know like how marketable are you? What are you bringing to the equation?
MEG: And not just like number of books, but like were you ... are you an incredible expert in this thing that's really important to schools now? Like just really assessing your value, and that ... and putting a price tag on it. I think agents can help with that, and I think other authors can, too. And I think you just revisit your fees over time. You know, the fee that you set two years ago is not the fee that you have this year. You know, inflation so to speak. Prices go up.
JACQUELINE: Right, right.
MEG: And also, I think the thing that also happens eventually, I'm happy to say, is that you start to get more invitations sometimes than you can actually handle, right? And in my case, I like to introduce other authors, other Latinx authors, to the table. So, you know, my price now is, is ... the rate is, I think not unachievable, but it does give people pause. Like you have to really want me to come, to invite me and to invest in that, okay? And I'm happy to come.
MEG: But you know, there are other authors also that can come, and you know, who maybe have fewer books, or they're newer or whatever, and that gives them entrance into things. That's my own decision. Some people don't feel that way, but you know, from the particular place that I'm writing as a woman from a more marginalized community, it is really important for me, obviously to advance my own career, it is really also important to me to advance Latinx children's book authors. And so that is one way that I could keep my sanity-
MEG: -it reduced the number of visits that I do, and also opened the door for newer voices so that they can start their own path.
JACQUELINE: I think it also gives you ... and if we hold in our mind that, if the school can't afford us, there are other wonderful, wonderful authors who charge less that they can afford. That kinda relieves us of the whole, "It's for the kids. If you don't come, then the kids don't get to see an author." I mean, they will see an author; they'll see a wonderful author. They just might not see you.
MEG: Right. Or they can, they can Skype me in.
MEG: I mean there are other-
JACQUELINE: There are different ways.
MEG: You can do a price point and create accessibility. And the other thing I do because volunteerism is an important part of my identity, like it's a value that I have. I move through the world thinking about how it is that I want to make books a part of every person's life, not just you know, other writers and people who love books, but like the plumber, you know, the architect. The guy who's trimming trees. Like how do we make books part of this community, and so I do a lot of things in my own community. Ooh, sorry.
MEG: I do a lot of things in my own community that support that. I also feel like ... oh my goodness, I just lost my train of thought. Where was I going with this?
JACQUELINE: You were talking about bringing books to the whole community, that that's important ... you walk through life with that being part of ...
MEG: I'm sorry, I had a brain blip for a moment-
JACQUELINE: No, that's fine.
MEG: -when the ping came in. Because I feel like I choose two organizations a year, usually in my state so that it's easy to get to, that I do for free, but they have to approach me. You know, like I have to have details about them, and why they can't afford me in any other way, and why it matters that I am specific and the person who comes to them. And then I have a way to feel like I have given back to my community.
MEG: I have done my share of the heavy lifting because not any one of us can lift the whole thing, and I'm also not undercutting myself, so ...
JACQUELINE: Right. You talk about the murkiness of so much of this, and for me personally, the way I approach what you were just talking about is, I keep them separate. I have what I do as charitable giving, which is a very important part of my life. It's an annual practice; I'm very, very ... I like to be very systematic and organized about my charitable giving, but that is separate from my work. My work is my work. I earn money doing my work, and then as a private citizen, I give to charities that are important to me, and so that helps me to keep, to keep a little bit less murkiness in this, "Well, why aren't you charitably giving your work? Why isn't that what you're giving?"
JACQUELINE: I say, "No, no, no. I do my charitable giving. Don't worry about that, but my work is my work." And it helps me not fall into that trap that sometimes people ... I don't even think they know that they're laying the trap, but ... of you know, "Why won't you do this for free? Why won't you do your work for free?"
MEG: Yeah, it's awkward.
MEG: I hate that moment where I have to explain that I'm not coming for free.
MEG: Well, you know what? And here, this is circling back to something we talked about before. I actually do. I post my complete fee schedule, everything, every detail about it is posted on my web site so absolutely anybody in the universe can go and look at that. And I do it for a few reasons.
MEG: First of all, because it allows the schools the chance to, in the privacy, you know of their own classroom with their computer, to kinda get a sense of what I charge, and so they're not shocked and surprised when we ... you know that first awkward conversation you can sometimes have when they realize that you're actually charging a respectable fee for what you do?
MEG: So because it's on my web site, I never have those conversations anymore. Nobody calls me up. Nobody emails me and asks ...
JACQUELINE: [inaudible 00:22:00]. Nobody calls me up. Nobody emails me and asks, "What do you charge," because it's on my website. I do it for other authors and illustrators because I think it's very useful for all of us as we think about how we value ourselves, to be able to just look everybody up. Look it all up, and say, "Oh this is what ... Oh, that makes sense, because this person is at this point in their career." And "Oh that makes sense, because this person is at this point in their career." And then find their own place, what they feel comfortable.
JACQUELINE: And finally, because it's my own practice of not being ashamed. It's almost a daily practice of saying, "This is what I am worth. Here. I'm saying it. This is what I'm worth." So for all those reasons, I put it up there. And I know a lot of authors are extremely uncomfortable with it. I wish more of them would throw the information up there, out in the .... Just so we can stop acting like this is something we're not supposed to talk about.
MEG: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think everybody ... You know how this is. Everybody is working with their own comfort. I get fear of those phone calls only because other ... I have a booking organization, the Author [inaudible 00:23:16], that handles those queries for me. And that's all very transparent. He will tell you right away my fees and so on. So, yeah, I think you have a point. I think sharing the information, certainly, is really important. And not being cagey about it. And not saying, "Oh, well ..." You know, kind of.
JACQUELINE: Yeah, yeah.
MEG: But people feel embarrassed. You know I think [crosstalk 00:23:46].
JACQUELINE: They do.
MEG: Am I charging them enough? Am I charging too little? Yeah.
JACQUELINE: Right. So at the end you bring up all these great questions that you encourage us to write down and tape next to our computers about ... just the questions that you ask about, "Is everybody on the panel being paid the same?" And you said it's the question that you ask right after just to verify, this is not an all-male panel. There will be people of color on this panel too. These are all questions that I think for a lot of authors call, cause that feeling you described as "hair on the tongue."
JACQUELINE: Are you finding that those questions are coming more and more easily to you? That you are able to ask those questions without hesitation, without being uncomfortable?
MEG: Yeah, well as I said, most of my questions are being answered in the front and by [Phil 00:24:38], but they're absolutely vital. And the other question is do you have a sexual harassment policy. That's the other one that is absolutely just part of the thing. And I will tell you, I just went to [BEA 00:24:50], a couple of days ago, and I was so appreciative because, for the first time in my packet from my publisher here comes the sexual harassment policy of the publisher and what they expect. And it was such a refreshing change. It felt to me like there it is in black and white. We're not kidding.
JACQUELINE: Right, right.
MEG: It's not just the outliers saying this. These are the terms. So I do ask. I think that's important. As we help people think about things that had never occurred to them before. It always feels challenging at first. So for example, people often want me to come and be on a diversity panel, right. And I speak about diversity all the time. I am absolutely diversity warrior and advocate, but I can speak on many things and I expect to be asked to speak, not only my Latin [inaudible 00:26:06] as it applies to book publishing but on character, on theme, on trend, whatever. And so I find myself having that conversation also. I think we have to ... sometimes we are teaching. We are part of moving this whole thing forward. And so unmasking things by removing that sort of bad power associated with talks about money, talks about are you pigeon - essentially are you pigeon-holing me when we're asking is this a male panel and all male panel. Is there good representation on this panel?
MEG: Those are the ... what we're saying is, these are my terms, and we're ... oh my goodness ... and we are entitled to that. I'm trying to that these pingings ... if I lower, let me see.
JACQUELINE: Oh don't worry about, don't worry about it. We're close to the end at this point.
MEG: Sorry about that.
JACQUELINE: No, no no. No problem at all. I love the way you end your essay, self love and money because those two things can feel so at odds with each other. And so it's a wonderful way to kind of wrap the whole thing up. Before we say goodbye I'm gonna ask the two questions that we ask every person who comes on our podcast. So could you tell us what you're working on right now, or something in your career that's happening right now that you're particularly excited about that you'd like us to know about?
MEG: Well I think the most exciting thing is that in September I have a new middle grade coming out. It's called Merci Suarez Changes Gears. And it's really novel. It looks at change, whether you're nine or you're eighty, but Merci Suarez is just one of ... I have fallen in love with this character. It's such a joy to write her. I wrote her in a short story for flying lessons and other stories. And I wasn't done with her, and I've written a whole novel for her. And she just grabs at everything I hope for in girls in terms of the struggle that they face in growing up, their resilience, their humor, and also their growing sense of the world, the good parts and the sad parts. So that comes out of Candlewick, and so I hope please everybody [inaudible 00:28:43].
JACQUELINE: Wonderful, yes what's the pub date?
MEG: The pub date is not a good one. It's September 11th, which gives me the chills so I have to reclaim -
JACQUELINE: It's memorable.
MEG: That day. I'm reclaiming it for joy, Merci Suarez comes out that day.
JACQUELINE: I had a dog who was born on September 11th, and that's how I reclaimed the day that way. This dog I loved very much.
MEG: What's your dog's name so I can send him a birthday card or her?
JACQUELINE: Harley, it's a girl.
MEG: Harley, happy birthday baby.
JACQUELINE: Thank you. So and then the other question that is that we always like to ask is if you could have anything, absolutely anything related to your career, pie in the skies, shoot for the moon, go crazy, what would your dream thing be right now to have in your career.
MEG: Oh my gosh, you know here is the thing. The last line of that essay is self love, right, and money. It is so hard to say your dreams aloud sometimes because it feels crazy.
JACQUELINE: Right and that's why we're pushing. That's why we're pushing it. I'll tell you some of the people ... I mean we've gotten some crazy ideas. I mean some ... one author said she wants her own jet airplane to get to all her speaking. I said that I wanted a street named after me, which I thought was a rather gutsy move, so is there anything just, I don't know, that would just be like, oh that would be the best, that would be awesome.
MEG: You know what, I would like to garner enough awards and sales and things like that, just success in the field so that I can own a house near the ocean, continue my writing there, where I feel, always feel the most rested, and the most expansive in my thinking. I just, I love the water, and I live right in the middle of Virginia. I'm landlocked. I'm by the James River, but I'm not swimming in that thing. I just feel like that would be such a joy.
JACQUELINE: That would be heaven.
MEG: So come on people.
JACQUELINE: That's a good one, that's a good one. I'm rooting for you on that one. All right well Meg [Medina 00:31:03], it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you today, and thanks for spending time with us, and we look forward to hearing from you again soon.
MEG: Okay, thanks JACQUELINE talk to you soon.
JACQUELINE: Talk to you soon, bye bye.