Cuban-American writer Meg Medina received the 2014 Pura Belpré Award for her young adult novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Two years later she picked up Pura Belpré Honors for her picture book Mango, Abuela and Me. In Merci Suárez Switches Gears (Candlewick, Sept.), Medina targets readers who fall between both age groups with 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. She’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 Switches Gears grew out of a short story that appeared in Flying Lessons Other Stories (2017), edited by Ellen Oh. “The story was about a girl coming to terms with her socioeconomic class, and the fact that how she sees herself and her family clashes with how others see them,” says Medina. “Since the character seemed to resonate with readers, I began imagining bigger things for Merci. I love it when a story line moves into another reality and a fuller world—and I realize the only thing to do is write a novel.”

“The middle school age, when kids are detaching from childhood and trying to figure so much out, really intrigues me,” says Medina. “It can be so exciting one moment and so scary the next.”

But Medina is equally comfortable on YA, middle grade, and picture book terrain. “In all of my books, I always write on three levels—about girls, family, and culture,” she says. “And I love exploring how the three intersect at different points in characters’ lives. This passion has opened endless fictional doors for me.”

The power of memory, which she calls “the pillar of the whole process,” sparks all of Medina’s fiction. “What I enjoy most,” she says, “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.”