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If your 12- or 13-year-old child or grandchild were being bullied, would you want her to hear a YA author–one who had herself been bullied–speak about hope and survival? Even if she wrote a novel about bullying that had the word “ass” in the title?

Students in the seventh and eighth grade at Cumberland Middle School in Virginia missed out on the chance to hear award-winning author Meg Medina address them at a school-sponsored anti-bullying event–one to which she had been enthusiastically invited–because of the title of her highly praised new novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick Press). The book features bullying as its central theme, and occasionally uses language that Medina–and a bullying expert–say kids use to torment their victims.

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Medina, of Richmond, was invited in March by the principal of Cumberland Middle School to speak in advance of National Bullying Prevention Month in October. Less than three weeks before the September 17 event, he sent her an email canceling her talk. The reason? Concern over how some members of the community might react to her book’s title. Ironically, September 22 is the start of Banned Book Week sponsored by the American Library Association.

The drumbeat of concern was actually rumbling for a few days. Prior to receiving the principal’s summary cancellation, a school official sent Medina a message, asking — at the principal’s request — that she refrain from mentioning the full title of her book, not use “offensive language,” and not show the book’s cover.

Here is an excerpt from Medina’s response to the school, which she posted on her website’s blog:

For me to come to your school and distance myself from my work feels disrespectful of me as an author, but worse, it feels dishonest in dealing with the students, most especially those who are on the receiving end of harassment that already makes them feel ashamed. If I refuse to even name my book or tell them that the title comes from hearing those awful words firsthand, I would only be adding to that shame. … I believe that one way we adults can help is to acknowledge the reality of what our kids are experiencing…

Medina did suggest a compromise. Perhaps the school could send a letter home to the parents about her upcoming appearance and her books? Parents who would find the material offensive could opt out.

No deal. The door slammed shut after the Labor Day weekend.

When asked if she had intended to read from Yaqui Delgado during her presentation at Cumberland, she says: “I don’t typically read from my books when I do school visits. If anything, I’ll read a page. I speak about writing, and the kinds of books I write — books with strong Latina characters. I tell the kids what my books are, and that I write for all age groups, and then I launch into the focus of the session.”

The title of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass comes from the novel’s opening line, a message delivered by Yaqui Delgado’s lackey to Piddy Sanchez, the book’s 15-year-old protagonist. Piddy is new at the school. She has no idea who Yaqui Delgado is or why she wants to hurt her. The book, praised in the Washington Post as “richly developed” and “unflinching,” includes a harrowing example of cyber-bullying.

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YA Author Meg Medina

The child of Cuban immigrants, Medina grew up in Queens, where for two years, starting in the seventh grade, she endured the trauma of bullying. She calls that time a “fight for my dignity.” It is “the shard of experience” that inspired Yaqui Delgado.

The Issue of Censorship
Acacia O’Connor coördinates the Kids’ Right to Read Project in New York City for the National Coalition Against Censorship and its joint sponsor, the American Booksellers’ Foundation. She says that the NCAC is seeing many instances of censorship of late, particularly with respect to uses of profanity. “We work on a new case about once a week,” she says. “Since August 1st of this year, ten new challenges or issues involving schools and libraries have come to our attention.” O’Connor recently wrote about Medina’s situation on the NCAC blog:

At the heart of [cancellations such as Medina’s] lies the belief that we can clean up the world by erasing the parts some people dislike.

O’Connor says that author Judy Blume, a NCAC board member, brought the Medina-Cumberland County Schools issue to her attention, calling Blume a “guardian angel” to YA authors who are going through these controversies.

“I think it’s regrettable that there has been so much lead-up and enthusiasm surrounding [Medina’s] talk,” says O’Connor, “especially with her expertise and familiarity with the topic of bullying. It’s unfortunate that students won’t be able to hear her wonderful message because of a misunderstanding over the use of a particular … word.”

A Bullying Expert Weighs In
Dr. Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist and Bunker Professor of Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, is a national expert on bullying. He directs the Youth Violence Project at UVA and serves as a program director of Youth-Nex, the university’s Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. He first met Meg Medina when he was asked to comment on her book as part of a panel for the Virginia Festival of the Book.

“One of the biggest barriers to helping victims of bullying is their reluctance to seek help,” says Cornell–a reluctance born out of fear. “Adults are often blind to the presence of bullying, and our bullying prevention programs often fail to reach students who are in trouble. Medina’s book is a terrific illustration of these problems and has the potential to reach young people who need assistance and otherwise would not receive it.”

Cornell understands that the wording of Medina’s title might be troubling to some parents and teachers, but he hopes that they won’t judge the book by its cover–that they will take the time to read it. “I think [the title] reflects the reality of how many young people speak to one another.” He calls Medina’s book “a good source of insight” for parents and teachers who might not appreciate the way that bullying pervades youth culture, or how limited prevention programs can be.

Praise from Reviewers
In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called Yaqui Delgado “a nuanced, heart-wrenching and ultimately empowering story about bullying.”

School Library Journal even had a word to say about the book’s cover in its starred review:

Lots of action with a realistic setting, dialogue, relationships, problems, and solutions make this book a winner. The cover–a blue locker with graffiti for the title–will attract reluctant readers. The content will keep them reading to the end and wanting more.

Judging a Book by its Cover
The book’s cover, however, was what Cumberland County school officials were judging. That, and a promotional trailer.

Requests for an interview with Dr. Amy Griffin, Cumberland County Superintendent of Schools, went unanswered. Her only on-the-record comments appear in Richmond Magazine’s blog and a statement that she sent to Richmond television station WRIC, in which Griffin notes concern about the title of Medina’s book and “inappropriate language” used in the promotional trailer.

In the Richmond Magazine blog, Griffin is quoted as saying: “[Medina’s book] really more to me seemed to address high school and inner city.”

One final, tragic note: On September 13, four days before Medina would have given her presentation at Cumberland Middle School, the New York Times reported on yet another bullying-related suicide. Students had relentlessly taunted and cyber-bullied Rebecca Sedwick, urging her to kill herself. She did as they suggested, jumping to her death from a platform at a cement factory. Rebecca was 12 years old. She lived in Lakeland, Florida. She was in middle school, as were her tormentors.