Meg Medina has gotten “the call” before. It came on a Sunday night in January 2014 when the chairperson of the American Library Association’s Pura Belpré committee telephoned to say that her YA novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick), had won its gold medal for narrative. That award goes to a writer whose work best portrays the Latinx cultural experience in a work of literature for children or teens.
“They called about 10 at night, so when the phone didn’t ring this time, I thought, ‘Oh well, that’s it,’” Medina said. She went to bed and rose early to go to the YMCA for her cardio class. But Merci Suárez Changes Gears(Candlewick) had received five starred reviews. Medina was right to think her middle-grade novel about an irrepressible Cuban-American girl might have been on the radar of one of ALA’s many award committees. “Psychologically, you fight expectation, but there is this tiny seed of hope that you’ve won something, that one of these awards will have your name on it, but you’re afraid to hope too much.”
And as it turned out, the phone did ring at 10 at Medina’s home in Richmond, Va., but this time it was 10 a.m., which was 7 a.m. in Seattle where the Newbery committee members had assembled to make their calls. Medina was back from the gym and getting into the shower when she saw an unfamiliar number on her phone’s and answered by saying, “Who is this?”
“When she [chairperson Ellen Riordan] said it was the Newbery committee and I had won the medal, all of the emotion I had been holding back, not only for this day, but over the entire course of my career as a writer, just came crashing forward and I sank to the floor of my bathroom and had a big messy cry,” Medina said. “Those poor people. I have no idea what I even said to them but I’m so grateful that they loved Merci and the Suárez family.”
Merci Suarez is Medina’s seventh book but only her second middle grade novel. She also won recognition from the Pura Belpré committee in 2016 for Mango, Abuela, and Me, a picture book. Other than her first novel, Milagros: Girl from Away (Holt, 2008), all of her books have been edited by Candlewick’s Kate Fletcher.
“And she doesn’t speak a word of Spanish!” Medina said. “I am working on her, though.”
The novel, which stars 11-year-old Merci but prominently features her extended Cuban-American family, began as a short story Medina contributed to Flying Lessons and Other Stories, an anthology edited by Ellen Oh (Crown), and produced in cooperation with We Need Diverse Books. The collection included short stories by Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander and others. “All the heavyweights and me,” Medina said. Medina gave Merci her own childhood love of bike-riding and her birthplace, setting the story in South Florida, where Medina’s parents emigrated to when they left Cuba in 1960. Medina was the first of her family to be born in America.
She found that even after turning in the story for the anthology, Merci had a lot more to say. “I wasn’t finished with her, or she wasn’t finished with me,” Medina said. “You know how Merci is. She keeps coming at you.”
Medina also felt strongly that the moment was right for a story about the particularities of the immigrant experience and the universal truths about growing up.
“I worry for children right now, especially in Latino families, around the issue of immigration,” she said. “These children are not deaf. They are hearing all of this political talk. We need books that sound and look the way we as Americans look, books that get into the corners of children’s experiences.” And though her Pura Belpré Awards are cherished achievements—“It’s the award of your language, of your home, of your parents,” she said—the Newbery will bring a much wider audience to Merci’s story. “That sticker is like a magic portal,” she said.
There is also this: the Newbery conveys on a book something close to immortality, and on its author membership in a very exclusive club. “Just to join the amazing authors who have already won, that my name is going to be part of that list, that is why my knees buckled, why I wept,” Medina said. “One day, my grandchild will walk into a library and see the title of my book as a Newbery winner and say, ‘My abuela wrote that.’”
Not that she is an abuela, yet, mind you. “No, right, don’t make me a grandmother yet,” she said. “Someday in the future, my grandchild will say that.”