Meg Medina and R.J. Palacio at Niagara Falls, circa 1979. (Marco Jaramillo)
Imagine a girl, wavy brown hair, big smile, bright eyes, on the tall side, long legs and arms, in constant motion. (If she were a baby animal, she’d be a colt.) Imagine this girl is your best friend, the kind of girl who is always eager to disappear with you on an adventure, whether walking trails in the woods of the park near where you both live, or playing kickball in the street where a manhole cover serves as home plate. You don’t ever really stop to “talk” about things happening in your lives, this friend and you: You’re too busy just living those lives.
Life is a series of moments that don’t pass by you as much as they pass through you, at dazzling speed. Like summer days. Sleepovers. Catching fireflies. Trading books. Riding bikes. Bickering. Making up. Greek mythology. Egyptian murals. Camping trips with the Girl Scouts. Scary stories around the campfire. Lunches at her house. After school at yours. Imagine this girl is the kind of kid you can count on for anything, who will jump into the deep end of the pool with you, scramble up the wire fence for the dodgeball you tossed, run alongside you with joyful abandon — spirited, resolute, yearning for the next adventure, a smile almost too big for her face.
I can imagine that girl easily, of course, because I knew her. She was Meg Medina. And though she and I are both well into our fifth decade on this Earth, she will always be that colt of a girl to me. To the rest of the world she is the author of critically acclaimed books for children and young adults, a passionate promoter of diversity and cultural sensitivity in children’s and young adult books and now a Newbery Award winner.
But in my heart, Meg Medina is still “Medinita,” as my father used to call her: the best friend a girl could hope to have.
I don’t remember when, exactly, we lost touch, but sometime after Meg moved away in the seventh or eighth grade, we were no longer in each other’s lives. (It was harder in those days, before Facebook and Google, to stay friends with people.) Although I thought about her often, for a while, the rigors of junior high school and all its attendant social dramas pushed thoughts of Meg away. We had each taken off into our own, new, separate worlds. It would be three decades before those worlds came together again.
I was working at Henry Holt when I got a call, out of the blue: “I’m not sure if you’ll remember me, but I’m Meg Medi— ” I didn’t let her finish that sentence before I started screaming. “Remember? Of course I remember! My dear! My darling Meg! Meg!”
R.J. Palacio and Meg Medina. (Courtesy of Meg Medina)
We made plans to get together as soon as we could. She was living in Virginia. I was in New York. She came up for a visit, and we had a five-hour lunch during which we brought each other up to speed on our lives. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, children. I learned that she was married to a wonderful man named Javier, whom she had known since they were 5 years old. They had three amazing children. She had been a teacher for several years and then a journalist. Her mother, Lidia, was living with them in Richmond, as were her Tía Isa and Javier’s mother. “Like a Cuban version of ‘The Golden Girls,’ ” Meg joked. Life had brought its share of challenges for the family, but equal shares of joy.
She had grown up to be the kind of woman I would have chosen for a friend. Kind, funny, unassuming, brilliant. If our kids had gone to preschool together and I hadn’t known her, I would have parked my stroller next to hers to try to become her friend. If we had worked in the same office together, I would have made small-talk at the Xerox machine every day until she finally decided to make lunch plans with me. Luckily for me, though, I didn’t have to seek out a new friendship with this cool, wonderful woman. It was just there, like a prize, a treasure. My long-lost friend. I loved her instantly, again.
It was during that five-hour lunch that I found out she was working on a children’s book. “Wow,” I said. “What a coincidence. I am too!” I’m not sure what the odds are that two first-generation public-school girls, whose parents spoke English with thick Spanish accents; who grew up in Flushing, Queens, in what can only be described as extremely modest apartments; and whose lives took very divergent paths, would nevertheless find themselves sitting across from each other embarking on very similar new life trajectories — but there we were.
By then Meg had already finished the manuscript for her first book, “Milagros: Girl from Away,” and I had just started mine, “Wonder” — but we were still setting out on the same journey. It was like the two girls we used to be, following that little trail through the woods years ago, had somehow found each other again on the same trail, only much farther ahead.
Meg let me read “Milagros.” I remember being blown away. The language was so beautiful, the writing eloquent and lyrical. Magic realism for middle schoolers. Brilliant! “Dang, Meg,” I remember telling her. “You can really write, girl!” I knew she had an incredible career ahead of her.
(Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Fast-forward a decade later. I’m having lunch with Meg again. By now, she has written not only middle-grade books, but also picture books and young adult. Her work has garnered accolades galore. I remember sitting across from her at lunch and predicting her next book — “Merci Suárez Changes Gears” — would win the Newbery. Meg, in that self-deprecating way of hers, looked at me like I was crazy.
“Merci Suárez Changes Gears” is a tenderhearted, funny, realistic and ultimately heartbreaking story about a girl from a big, close-knit, Cuban family who learns to come to terms with the changes in her life — the social dynamics of her new middle school, her brother going off to college, her beloved grandfather struggling with Alzheimer’s. It’s a beautiful portrait of an unabashedly smart, self-aware, confident young heroine (as familiar to me as an old friend), who is deeply loyal to the people she loves and who doesn’t want anything to change in the life she cherishes. But as her mother tells her: “Things happen over time. . . .We need to respect how things change.”
The challenges Merci faces were familiar to me. I knew Meg’s life enough to know she was writing what she herself knew quite well — growing up in a multigenerational Cuban household surrounded by loving tías and abuelas, raising her own children in their family’s version of “Las chicas de oro.” I knew enough about Meg’s life to know that she has been, with love and grace and humor, the good daughter, the amazing mother, the patient caretaker. This novel was written from that profound space in a writer’s heart from which art flows without artifice. “Merci Suárez Changes Gears” has that effortless quality to it, the masterful confidence of a writer who doesn’t need to prove she’s a writer, whose words come less from some lofty creative place than from dearly lived memories.
If you can imagine a girl whose dreams took her well beyond the end of the block she grew up on, beyond the factory her mother and aunts worked in to give her every opportunity to succeed in life, beyond the memories of the Caribbean island she herself never visited but still considered her magical homeland, you can imagine why becoming part of the American canon of children’s literature is an especially amazing feat. If you can imagine a girl telling stories with the joyful enthusiasm of her 9-year-old self, able to remember what it is like to run through the woods with breathless abandon like a beautiful, wild colt, you can not only imagine, but know, the woman that is Meg Medina.
To me, though, she will always be the little girl with a smile that is almost too big for her face, yearning for the next big adventure.
R.J. Palacio is the author of “Wonder,” “Auggie & Me” and “We’re All Wonders.” Her forthcoming book is “White Bird.” This is an abridged version of an essay that appeared originally in the Horn Book.