The sparkly disco ball on the cover of Meg Medina’s mesmerizing new YA novel, Burn Baby Burn, evokes the summer of 1977. But there are flames on the disco ball, too, burning with an intensity that hints at something much more dangerous than disco. In New York City, this was the summer of a relentless heat wave, ever-escalating crime and a serial killer dubbed Son of Sam.
“I like the notion of disco ball as time bomb,” Medina tells BookPage in a call from her home in Richmond, Virginia. In Burn Baby Burn, the explosion comes in the form of a citywide blackout, a real-life incident that Medina remembers well. She was 13 years old and living in Queens.
Medina is the author of five previous books, including the 2014 Pura Belpré Author Award-winning Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, but this is her first novel of historial fiction. She quickly realized it wasn’t enough to draw from her own memories, and so she delved into newspapers to help re-experience that summer’s terror. “I wanted to write the story as respectfully as possible,” Medina says. “It’s part of the historical record of the city, eBand I didn’t want to glamorize it or make it sensational. What I wanted to capture was the sense of horror and dread that we felt.”
That instability and uncertainty permeate the pages of Burn Baby Burn and the life-changing summer of its protagonist, 17-year-old Nora Lopez. Nora has plans for her post-high school life: She’s saving money from her part-time deli job so she can move out of the apartment she shares with her mother, Mima, and brother, Hector. In the meantime, she’s enjoying the beach and disco dancing with her college-bound best friend, Kathleen, even as they alter their daily plans to ensure they aren’t vulnerable to the serial killer. That’s something Medina remembers well: Under Son of Sam’s shadow, running routine errands “felt like a really close call . . . like he could be anywhere and anybody.”
In addition to the fear that casts a pall over the city, Nora’s daily life is marked by exhausting, ultimately fruitless attempts to avoid setting off Hector’s increasingly explosive temper. It’s clear to Nora that Mima, who’s never disciplined Hector for his behavior, isn’t going to start handling things now. It’s up to Nora to save herself.
This is a daunting prospect for a teen with limited resources. Fortunately, Nora is surrounded by a coterie of supportive and caring spirits, including Kathleen and her parents, a badass neighbor named Stiller and the funny deli owner.
“It’s important to keep young people in contact with the idea that what your situation is right now isn’t what it will always be for you,” Medina says. “There are other people around from whom you can draw strength.”
Through the people who encourage Nora to think bigger (a guidance counselor urges her to apply to colleges) and broader (Kathleen’s mother and Stiller bring the girls to women’s rights rallies), Medina skillfully and movingly demonstrates that change can come in small increments, and though there may be setbacks, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort.
Take feminism, for example. Nora is growing up during the movement’s second wave, filled with marches and Bella Abzug’s bullhorn. “It’s so painful to me when we see young women now disavow that and say they’re not feminists,” Medina says. “So much of what they take for granted and are allowed to do came on the backs of women who took to the street, marching and being ‘difficult.’ So I wanted to write a story about young women in the beginning of that.”
There’s much that readers will take away from Burn Baby Burn, with its dramatic and all-too-real backdrop of a city in trouble and transition, and characters who are doing their best while realizing that it’s OK to want to do better.
“I believe in the relief of naming hard experiences,” Medina says. “There is a comfort in removing the shame around them. They happen to all kinds of people, and it’s not a character flaw in you, it’s humanity.”