By Asha Sridhar
Today we’re pleased to welcome Meg Medina to the WNDB blog to discuss her middle grade novel Merci Suárez Can’t Dance.
In Meg Medina’s follow-up to her Newbery Medal–winning novel, Merci takes on seventh grade, with all its travails of friendship, family, love—and finding your rhythm.
Seventh grade is going to be a real trial for Merci Suárez. For science she’s got no-nonsense Mr. Ellis, who expects her to be a smart as her brother, Roli. She’s been assigned to co-manage the tiny school store with Wilson Bellevue, a boy she barely knows, but whom she might actually like. And she’s tangling again with classmate Edna Santos, who is bossier and more obnoxious than ever now that she is in charge of the annual Heart Ball.
One thing is for sure, though: Merci Suárez can’t dance—not at the Heart Ball or anywhere else. Dancing makes her almost as queasy as love does, especially now that Tía Inés, her merengue-teaching aunt, has a new man in her life. Unfortunately, Merci can’t seem to avoid love or dance for very long. She used to talk about everything with her grandfather, Lolo, but with his Alzheimer’s getting worse each day, whom can she trust to help her make sense of all the new things happening in her life? The Suárez family is back in a touching, funny story about growing up and discovering love’s many forms, including how we learn to love and believe in ourselves.
From Merci Suárez Changes Gears to Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, how has Merci grown and evolved?
I think that was the big trick in writing this book, because the audience, essentially, stays the same. We have students from the fourth grade to maybe seventh grade reading the book. But I had to age the character in a way that was still relatable to them, to the readers. Merci is still not necessarily a fast bloomer. She’s not the first one out of the gate in romantic things or in anything like that. But I do see her gaining more confidence in herself, even as she’s asking questions about her friends and family and things like that. She is a more confident person in the second book. She has figured out the beginnings of real friendship and the dramas that happen in there. I think the experience with her grandfather as his illness deepens matures her. She has to sit side by side with very, very large problems and figure them out. She matures the way kids actually do, by necessity, and in spurts, and sometimes in very messy ways.
Of all her relationships, the one with her grandfather Lolo really stands out in the way that it’s written. It’s a very warm and special relationship. How difficult was it to write about Alzheimer’s for a young audience and what was the message you wanted to send across?
When I write about a difficult topic for young people, I try to keep present how they experience it, which is different from how the adults experience it. The adults experience it, for example, financially. They experience it emotionally. They experience it through the logistics of how to help someone who is disengaging from their own memory. But a child in that situation is experiencing a loss of relationship, an erasure.
I found Alzheimer’s hard to write about because it’s very sad, and because there’s no cure as of this writing. So, there’s no happy ending that’s going to come of this, right? Both in the last book and now, I have to come to terms with that. How do we end the story in a way that is honest, and in a way that respects the truth about Alzheimer’s and also where the readers are, emotionally, in terms of how they’re going to process the story? It’s a balance. It’s a difficult dance when you’re writing about very hard things for very young kids.
Why did you choose to tell Merci’s story in the first person? Why did you make that choice?
First-person present tense gets a lot of abuse in writing communities. I can’t remember… there’s someone really famous and well respected who calls it the scourge of writing. I couldn’t disagree more. I think that it’s very personal and very aligned with the writer, with the character’s inner voice. That’s the voice that kids sometimes don’t share with the world. The questions they have that stay unasked. The secret eye-rolling, the moments where they want to scream at their parents and don’t. All of those things are in that voice inside kids. The first person present just gives you the closest relationship to the character. It’s not for every kind of story. But I think for this one, that’s so much about a personal journey, and personal change, it works.
Absolutely, I completely agree with you. Because it is in the first person, we learn so much about how Merci deals with her emotions and her dilemmas and why she ultimately does what she does. It feels immediate and personal, and also makes her much more endearing. How different do you think it would have been had someone else been the narrator or if it was written from a different perspective?
I think it would be a different book. The distance that you have in the narration changes the story. I’m not certain that it wouldn’t be a better book in another narration. Every author finds the way into the story that best suits them. And, this one best suited what I was trying to accomplish. I just think it’s a question of distance from the character.
Merci starts noticing how Mr. Ellis is the only Black man in the Science Department. She notices how there are only a few students who talk like her; how nobody speaks in their mother tongues outside of the One World Week celebration at school; and a lot of other such little details. The task of processing and articulating these really complex emotions is on Merci and she does it so poignantly. When does Merci become sensitive to these differences and gaps? How did you write about it from a 12-year-old’s perspective?
I think this is about the age when kids start to move into early teen, late elementary school. They really start to look around and take a look at the adult world and the structures around them, even if they don’t understand them all the way through. But they notice. They notice if there are a lot of kids who look like them or sound like them. They know the rules of when they’re supposed to speak, let’s say Spanish, at school, at home, and with who. To be a child from a marginalized community is to understand so many complicated rules from a very young age. And that becomes the drama. That becomes the challenge of it. It becomes the journey.
For example, I remember being a young kid and being very embarrassed by my mother’s language skills, her heavy accent, that she wasn’t able to keep up with reading the kinds of things my friends’ parents were reading, or she didn’t read the New York Times. It embarrassed me at the time. Now, nothing could be further from the truth. But at the time, when I was 11 and 12, I felt very much the “weirdness” of this supposed adult who was supposed to be guiding me through things who didn’t have these basic things about this country down, such as the language.
Certainly, Merci notices these things in her school. I also didn’t want to write a private school full of wealthy white children, because I don’t think that’s what private schools necessarily look like now. Sometimes you’ll be in a school that does have lots of different faces. But it somehow still defaults to the white American model and interpretation of things. That can be really uncomfortable.
I tried to write Merci’s interaction with these things, not from the adult perspective. I tried not to insert what I think about these things. I tried to let Merci have her own thoughts. And they are incomplete thoughts. They are musings. They are the beginning of a kid wondering what she thinks about these things and what they mean to her specifically.
You know, it’s tempting as an author sometimes, to want to step in and add to the character what we already know in adulthood, right? To moralize in some way or to chastise. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted Merci to be in charge of her growing up, and in charge of coming to her own conclusions, even if, sometimes, they are faulty in the beginning.
You have a very close understanding of middle school life. It comes across throughout the book, especially in aspects like these. How much has your time as a teacher influenced you as a writer?
I have beautiful memories of my life as a teacher. It was a wonderful job. I loved being with students. They made me laugh so hard. They made me think. They always challenged me. Some days, I was a great teacher, and probably, some days I was not a great teacher. Even all these years later, I sometimes think back to events of my teaching life and I say, “Oh, I wish I had done that differently.” It’s interesting how you remember those things forever.
I still remember my very first third-grade class where everybody sat in the room. There’s something about the experience of learning together, of being in charge of children for such a long time every day, and being in such close relationships that changed me and really impacted me. I’m so grateful for the process of having been a teacher.
A lot of those experiences were little things that I remember from watching my students. Then, of course, I went off to be a mother myself and had a front-row seat to my own children’s dramas with peers, and with themselves and teachers. I just sort of mixed it all up and tried to make sure that it felt current, because that’s always a danger, that it starts to feel like memory instead of actually what’s happening.
It was a mix of my children, my own experience as a teacher, and the need to keep a lens on it, to make sure that, for example, the blackboards were smart boards, that they take notes on computers, that they’re using technology—things that were not part of my life as a teacher. They were just starting. We were just starting to use computers when I was a teacher in the classroom if you could imagine that.
So just observation. That’s the thing about authors and writers, and illustrators too, for that matter. I just think it’s an ability or decision to really observe the detail. The details of what someone looks like, let’s say, when they choose to sit on the front of the bus instead of the back of the bus, and why? The detail of what it’s like when the teacher says, “All right, find a partner,” and you’re frozen in horror for a minute because you’re not a person who feels comfortable finding a partner. Little things, you know, it’s never the big thing. The combination of all of the little things together is what makes the experience feel real.
You said in an interview with Reading Rockets that the stories that your grandmother narrated to you about Cuba when you were a kid were like a ribbon connecting you to who you were. Is that something you consciously set out to do with your stories? How has that shaped you as a storyteller?
Yeah, I do think so. I write very much to center bicultural children. Certainly Cuban children, and Latinx children in general who are bicultural. Maybe they were born here or they came here when they were very young, but they are very much a part of the American fabric. They also carry with them equally, the stories, the journeys, the pain, the difficulties of their family.
I think that, especially for the first generation, that’s just such a defining identity. In some ways, it’s the American story in general, right? Because we are a country of immigrants. There’s something really powerful in having kids feel seen, bicultural kids feel seen, having their backgrounds validated, not othered, not shamed, but celebrated.
I’m from Cuba, but it’s very similar, let’s say, to someone from Pakistan, or someone from Korea. There are so many similarities about the experience, even with the very specific differences. That’s an important thing to do. It’s an important thing in children’s literature to develop respect, to develop understanding, and to really name the story of all the children in the room. It’s not a question of trying to erase anyone or trying to melt us all into some middle ground thing. It’s to preserve who we are individually, and then call us together—the beauty of that together in a classroom, in a community, in a school.
In your Newbery Medal acceptance speech, you call the Suarezes a “big loving mess” and the importance of family is a very consistent theme in both your books. How do you think Merci would have coped with the pandemic? What do you think is the role of family in this very challenging time?
I think the challenge would have been what we see along the digital divide in communities. I think Internet access might be really hard. I imagine that Tia Ines does not have two separate laptops for the twins. I would imagine that Roli might be sent home from college for a time period, or have to go hybrid. He might not be able to afford to come back and forth. I don’t think that would work. There would be Abuela’s enormous fear of germs. She would be over the top with this. Mami, as the scientific person, would try to steer the course. And then, a very, very real economic need that they would face because Papi is a painter. He’d have to go into people’s homes and that’s not something that many people felt comfortable with.
There would be economic hardship. There would be emotional trial. But I also feel like, as usual, we find a way forward with the people we love when things are working. And, I think so many things are working in the Suarez family. They’re there for each other always. That is the bottom line—they show up for each other. That is one of the lessons of the pandemic in real life—that we have to show up for each other.
Are you reading any books now that you would want to recommend to our readers?
I just read Ellen Oh’s Finding Junie Kim. The sections, especially on the Korean War, the memories of the grandparents of the Korean War were so chilling. It was such a great and honest look at war through the eyes of children. That one really stood out to me. I am currently reading a YA title, Jenny Torres Sanchez’s We Are Not From Here, which won a Pura Belpre honor this year. I can’t read it at night because it scares me. What I love about this story is that the characterization is dead on. It’s just amazing. The other book I have on my nightstand is On the Hook by Francisco X. Stork. It’s coming out in May and I’m very excited to read that one because I love his work.
I’m always reading something. It’s a challenge trying to keep up with the amazing work that’s coming out. I maintain a book page on bookshop.org where I keep a shelf of what I am reading — Latinx reads, books on writing… So that I can keep track. If people are interested in what I’m reading, they can check it out there.
Is there another Merci book?
I’m working on what will be the third and final book, which is Merci in the eighth grade.
We will have seen her in sixth grade, seventh grade, and eighth grade. I just think of how much you change from the sixth grade to the eighth grade. I think you’re going to see the same in Merci—a very dramatic growth in her.
As an author, it’s my job now to look at all the storylines that I’ve opened across the first two books and figure out how to offer readers a safe landing that respects the truth and that respects them.
When is it scheduled to release?
I have no idea. I’m working on it now. I would assume that I will be finished writing it somewhere between June and September. I think it would be a year after that. So 2023 maybe. It will be a while. There’s a lot of tidying up to do. I have a lot of loose ends that I have to get in there.
What else are you working on currently other than Merci? Anything interesting that you’d like to share with us?
In June, I have a book out. It’s part of the She Persisted series from Penguin. I wrote about Sonia Sotomayor. It’s a chapter book and I’m so excited by that. First, because I’ve never written a chapter book. People pick things up and they think they are simple. I don’t know what they think but I was really kind of scared. I was scared to write it because, a. it’s about Sonia Sotomayor. And b. because I just hadn’t tried that form. But that’s the one beautiful thing about it—I feel excited about it because I hadn’t done it before, because I was testing myself.
I have a story in an anthology called Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed. It’s coming out of Flatiron. It’s Latinx writers in the diaspora. We were writing nonfiction essays that were loosely about some sort of stereotype we have faced in our life. The stories keep you on the edge of your seat. They are very hard-hitting. They’re very honest. I have never written about my life plainly in that way and I feel very exposed. That comes out in September.
Meg Medina is the 2019 Newbery Medalist for Merci Suárez Changes Gears. About this sequel, she says, “I’m so excited to bring my readers into the world of the Suárez family and Seaward Pines once again. . . . New friends, new teachers, and new self-doubts. It’s been a thrill to write about all the zany things that the seventh grade can throw at a person.” The recipient of the Pura Belpré Author Award for her young adult novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Meg Medina is also the author of the novels Burn Baby Burn and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind and the picture books Mango, Abuela, and Me and Tía Isa Wants a Car, for which she received an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. Meg Medina lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her family.
Asha Sridhar is a freelance writer based out of Jersey City. She loves wandering through old historic buildings, bustling streets and anything that closely resembles a bookshop.