Meg Medina on the Meaning of 'Merci' and the Newbery Medal

The 2019 Newbery Medal-winning author talks about her reaction to the phone call, writing about Latino families at this time in our country's history, and the power of the award.

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Like so many others who have come before her, author Meg Medina doesn’t remember what she said to the members of the Newbery committee when they called early on January 28 to say her book was selected as the Newbery Medal winner. She only knows that she made them wait on the other end of the phone as she pull herself through the “tsunami of feelings” washing over her at home in Richmond, VA.

“My knees sort of gave out, and I had to sit down on the floor and have myself a big ugly cry while all these lovely people waited patiently for me to compose myself,” Medina said Monday after winning the 2019 Newbery Medal for Merci Suárez Changes Gears. “It’s a hard year to be Latino in this country, so to have a book affirmed about an immigrant experience and an immigrant family felt really poignant to me.”

Sworn to secrecy before the official announement later in the morning, she could tell immediate family only—and only if she trusted them to keep the secret, too. She called her husband, Javier, at work and told him to go into an office and shut the door. She shared the news, and he cried, too.

“I’ve known by my husband since I was five years old,” she said. “There’s no part of my life I have lived that I don’t remember my husband being part of it, and this is so huge. It’s so huge. It was very meaningful to us.”

Merci tells the story of a sixth-grade girl dealing with growing up and changes at school and within her large immigrant family. Merci’s family is “a functional, beautiful family that’s flawed, and I think that is a universal appeal,” said Medina, who is Cuban-American and grew up in a big, immigrant family in New York City.

The middle grade novel is about how families work through changes, face problems together, and are rooted in love.

“That’s everybody; that’s not just Latinos,” she said. “But what I love about this story, in addition to that, is that it gives people a window into a healthy, functioning Latino family. We exist. Right now the rhetoric and conversation around Latinos and immigrants is that they’re in some way dangerous, that they’re in some way broken, that they’re a drain, that they’re all these negative stereotypes that have nothing to do with the people I know and that I have loved over the course of my life. I worry for kids—Latino kids and non-Latino kids—who have this in the ether every day around the news and around the table. Those attitudes get internalized and they’re damaging. So I’m writing in the face of that. I’m writing in opposition to that. I’m writing the truth that I know and laying it bare as honestly as I can and I think people see it. Or at least they saw it here in Merci.”

In Seattle, librarians attending the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting were excited by the choice.

"I love this book," said Amy Sears of the Teaneck (NJ) Public Library. "It is such a wonderful family story… it stays with you…. It was also an under-the-radar book; it hadn’t made any Mocks that I knew of…. It’s such a relatable story."

Sears called it a not only a worthy title, but also a popular one—something she knows committee members wouldn't take into consideration. But "When you’re a librarian, you go, ‘YES!’"

The Newbery Medal virtually guarantees that the novel will stay in print, a literary legacy. But to Medina, it also offers a sort of seal of approval to anyone who might have self-selected not to read a book about a Latino family.

“Winning awards and, in winning the Newbery in particular, helps remove that sense of 'other,'” she said. “This is a story about children, about families, about a girl and change and I like that. I think that is a way that the book can be used powerfully."

SLJ reviews director Kiera Parrott contributed to this article.

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