Award-winning Author Meg Medina was in the seventh grade in a public school in Queens, N.Y., when a bully suddenly targeted her.
"One day a girl ... came up to me and said: 'Jackie Delgado wants to kick your ass,' " Ms. Medina said during a recent program at the Takoma Park, Md., Library.
"I didn't even know who Jackie Delgado was! I found out that she was a really tough girl. She was a Latina and I was a Latina, but we were just in two different orbits.
"I spent the next two years being afraid. Those words started me on a cycle that I'm really sad to remember even to this day," said Ms. Medina, who added that her grades slipped, she acted out and disconnected from her family.
"I got dark inside," she said. "It took years for me to start to feel healthy again."
Now Ms. Medina transformed her experience of being bullied and dealing with the emotional consequences into the inspiration for a novel for teens titled "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" (Candlewick Press, $16.99).
In her novel, she tells the story of Piddy (short for Piedad) Sanchez, who becomes the new kid in her high school when she and her single mom move to a new apartment.
Bewildered at being singled out by someone she doesn't even know, Piddy's grades drop and she even begins skipping classes. She also becomes uncharacteristically caustic with her mother and falls into an intimate relationship with her former best friend Joey. But Piddy never thinks of informing authorities about the increasing harassment because she doesn't trust even the loving adults in her life to figure out a way to stop it.
When the bullying takes a horrific new turn via social media, however, school authorities finally realize what is happening. The final solution isn't perfect, but it does provide a way for Piddy to start healing from the emotional wounds she has been dealt.
"Yaqui Delgado," which has received four-starred reviews from professional librarian review journals, is a searing look at how bullying can unravel a life. Ms. Medina relentlessly builds suspense as the bullying escalates and Piddy becomes ever more disconnected from who she really is.
The author stressed that she hadn't set out to "write another bullying book."
"I actually was writing about resilience. I was writing about a girl who can be targeted, make mistakes, completely bury herself -- who she is -- and still climb her way back out," she said.
While Ms. Medina wanted to write an unflinchingly honest portrait of the effects of bullying, she initially shied away from the title that her editors chose for the novel.
"I was mortified at the idea," she said. "I live with my mother and she's so proud that I'm a writer, and it just made me sick about what she would think about the title. What would my mother say about a dirty word on the cover of the book?
"Eventually, I had to talk with her, and she told me about a bully in her school in Cuba in 1941," said Ms. Medina, adding that her mother told her that the title fit the book.
She said she also worried about how librarians would introduce the book during school visits, and that some people would think she was using the title as a gimmick to attract teen attention.
After struggling with the title, Ms. Medina finally embraced it because she realized it was a clear indication of the honesty with which she tells Piddy's story.
"If we had called it, 'Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Butt,' it wouldn't work -- it wouldn't be honest, and readers would know that," she said.
And it's the reactions of young readers to her books that keep Ms. Medina inspired as a writer. While she'd always loved to write fiction, Ms. Medina, a mother of three children, didn't think she could make a living at it and so worked for years at various commercial writing jobs.
One evening, at age 40, she arrived home to her house in Richmond, Va., and announced to her husband that she had quit her job.
"To his eternal credit, my husband remained calm and told me he thought I could do it. He said, 'Sometimes you have to jump out of the plane and believe that your (para)chute will open.'"
Since then, Ms. Medina has published three well-received novels -- "Milagros: Girl From Away" (for ages 8-12), "The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind" and now "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" (both for teens).
She also has published a picture book, "Tia Isa Wants a Car" (published simultaneously in Spanish as "Tia Isa Quiere Un Carro), which won the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. Her next book will be another picture book, but she also plans to keep writing for older children and teens and may even try her hand at an adult novel.
Overall, while it's important to Ms. Medina to write books that explore Latino culture, she also believes in telling stories for everyone.
"My characters are Latinos, but the stories are universal," she said.
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com. Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.