After the Call: A Literary Life

When I won the Newbery Medal for Merci Suárez Changes Gears in 2019, I stepped — starstruck and trembling — into a hundred-year history that included many of the books that had helped me grow up. The seal is our community’s highest honor, one that feels unreal, that boosts your exposure almost instantaneously and ensures that your book will be read for years to come.

But what the Newbery Award has meant most for me is something more personal. It has been a light in my search to answer important questions about my choice to live a literary life. What makes a story matter to young people, and more, what makes my life’s work as an author matter?

Those can be dangerous questions to ponder, especially when I’m drafting a new book. The pressure of a blank page alone can be immobilizing, especially if it’s coupled with my well-documented fear of ending up in the Land of Preachy Drivel. But there I was, with all those worries playing out as I wrote Merci. It was my first middle-grade in years. (My first middle-grade novel had gone out of print, a fact that shamed me in some deep way.) I second-guessed my story, wondering if such a specific story about a Cuban American girl would resonate. I wondered if the cast was too big, if the themes were too dark, if the jokes fell flat. But I came to the page and participated in that raw excavation of childhood anyway.

When the advance reader copies finally went out into the world, I sat in that tense silence authors know so well, and waited for the verdict. I busied myself as best I could. How else can I explain making two hundred book thongs adorned with bike charms?

In the end, there was connection, of course — and not just with young readers. I heard from teachers and parents whose families had been affected by Alzheimer’s and loss. “Thank you for giving us a book that helped us talk about this,” they said. It was also so humbling to meet the librarians who selected the book and hear about the care, discernment, and love they brought to selecting it as the winner. I learned that some of the committee members faced daunting personal situations that year, including the deaths and illnesses of loved ones, a theme that was so much a part of what Merci was grappling with. The book was a personal journey for all of us.

Left: Medina (center) with her family. Right: with her Newbery selection committee. Photos courtesy of Meg Medina.

The Newbery Medal has offered so many tangible benefits. My book has become part of kids’ bookshelves and librarians’ must-have orders. Parents put it on holiday lists, in English or in Spanish editions. Teachers include it in their curricula at every level. I love all those facts and the idea that the book will stay in print.

But most of all I am forever indebted for the clarity it gave me about books and a literary life. Thank you, Newbery, for teaching me that a book endures when it offers a true and honest meeting point for the writer and readers to share our longings and consider what makes us a human family.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Meg Medina

Meg Medina won the Newbery Medal in 2019 for Merci Suárez Changes Gears, whose sequel, Merci Suárez Can’t Dance published in April 2021, and Merci Suárez Plays It Cool (all Candlewick) is forthcoming. She has received the Pura Belpré Award for narrative as well as an honor award.

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