Cuban-American author Meg Medina’s talent as a writer has earned her accolades on both ends of the children’s book spectrum. She received the 2014 Pura Belpré Award for her young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and two years later picked up a Pura Belpré Honor for her picture book, Mango, Abuela and Me. Medina targets readers who fall between those age groups in her latest book from Candlewick, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, her first middle grade novel since her 2008 debut children’s book, Milagros: Girl from Away.
Merci Suárez is a strong-willed sixth-grade scholarship student at a posh private school who’s navigating tricky changes at home, where no one will tell her why her grandfather is becoming increasingly forgetful; and at school, where she becomes the target of a bossy girl’s jealousy.
Merci Suárez grew out of a short story that appeared in 2017’s Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh. “The story was about a girl coming to terms with her socio-economic class,” Medina explained, “and the fact that how she sees herself and her family clashes with how others see them. Since the character seemed to resonate with readers, I began imagining bigger things for Merci—and her world kept growing. Once everything explodes to that level, the only thing you can do is write a novel!”
Senior editor Kate Fletcher, who has been Medina’s editor for more than a decade (the author’s 2011 picture book, Tía Isa Wants a Car, was the very first book she acquired), noted that Medina covers all the bases in her latest middle grade novel. “Meg always writes so beautifully about the joys, complications, and frustrations of family,” she said. “In Merci Suárez, we see a large bicultural family that is very closely involved in one another’s lives—for better or worse—as well as friendships that feel authentic in their ups and downs. This novel has all the trademarks of Meg’s work: well-rounded and realistic characters, relatable situations, wonderful writing, and heart—plus a lot of humor. As for Merci, I love her spunk and that she’s not perfect. We see her struggle in middle school as everything is changing around her, but she tries to do the right thing—even when it means admitting to messing up.”
Equally comfortable on picture book, middle grade, and YA turf, Medina acknowledged the challenges and joys of writing for each audience. “I love what kids of all ages come to the table with,” she said. “In my picture books, I enjoy writing about girls who are just finding their voice and discovering friendships. Middle-school age, when kids are detaching from childhood and trying to figure so much out, really intrigues me. It can be so exciting one moment and so scary the next. What I found tricky about writing Merci was that the story is essentially about a happy family not victimized by violence or poverty, which is different from my YA novels, where I often look at extreme situations and family dynamics that are falling apart.”
Praising Medina’s ability to connect with readers of many ages, Fletcher observed, “No matter the audience, Meg writes strong, resilient female characters who are facing changes—and change is something children of any age can relate to. I think Meg moves so easily between audiences because she inherently knows, or remembers, what a seven-year-old might be afraid of, how a 12-year-old might feel if her friend starts treating her differently, or what a 17-year-old would desire most, and that helps her to embody those characters so fully. She meets each character where they are in their journey and figures out what they might encounter and what they might need along the way.”
Medina, too, identified a common thread in her picture books and novels, noting, “I always write on three levels—about girls, family, and culture—and I love exploring how the three intersect at different points in characters’ lives,” she said. “This passion has opened endless fictional doors for me.”
Also consistently fueling her fiction, the author added, is the power of memory, which she calls “the pillar of the whole process.” While writing in any genre, she said, “What I enjoy most is being able to remember myself and inhabit myself at various ages. I relive memories and put them into my work, and that’s what resonates with readers. I’m willing to be fuzzy with the facts, but I stay true to the feeling of the child in the moment. That’s what you most have to respect.”
Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Candlewick, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-7636-9049