Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Maturity Level: 3–
Content Warnings: Alzheimer’s and Dementia
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Merci Suarez knew that sixth grade would be different, but she had no idea just how different. For starters, Merci has never been like the other kids at her private school in Florida, because she and her older brother, Roli, are scholarship students. They don’t have a big house or a fancy boat, and they have to do extra community service to make up for their free tuition. So when bossy Edna Santos sets her sights on the new boy who happens to be Merci’s school-assigned Sunshine Buddy, Merci becomes the target of Edna’s jealousy. Things aren’t going well at home, either: Merci’s grandfather and most trusted ally, Lolo, has been acting strangely lately — forgetting important things, falling from his bike, and getting angry over nothing. No one in her family will tell Merci what’s going on, so she’s left to her own worries, while also feeling all on her own at school. In a coming-of-age tale full of humor and wisdom, award-winning author Meg Medina gets to the heart of the confusion and constant change that defines middle school — and the steadfast connection that defines family.
Do you know how sometimes reading about something you have experienced, especially pain, can be cathartic? How reading a character going through something you’ve already been through can make you feel so seen, especially when the writing is good? But you might also be familiar with the experience of something being so authentic that it drags you back to that time and might dredge up old feelings you don’t want. This book was definitely the second for me.
I didn’t realize, I think, until I was reading Merci Suárez how much middle grade authors really dial down the middle school experience. I mean, I get it, these kids are living middle school every day, they don’t need anyone to tell them how horrible it is. But Meg Medina did NOT shy away from how terrible tweens can be to each other, or how powerful their emotions can be. It was so real. Uncomfortably real. So while this book was PHENOMENAL, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have others because it reminded me how awful it was to be alone and friendless in middle school. Something I had, honestly, sort of forgotten and put behind me.
Yet Merci Suárez still had MG’s trademark hope for the future. While Meri doesn’t start miraculously fitting in, and the mean girls don’t turn nice as so often happens in MG, she feels hopeful that the rest of the year is going to be better, and if not she knows she’s strong enough to face it.
The main focus of the plot is Merci’s grandfather, Lolo, who has Alzheimer’s. While Merci doesn’t understand what is going on for most of the book, adult readers will recognize the symptoms right away. What was truly amazing about the writing was how well Medina captured the fear that comes from not knowing. I think kids will strongly relate to Merci’s fear that things are changing, especially since no one will tell her why.
I also appreciated that Medina addressed head-on how often adults don’t tell kids what they deserve to know in the name of “protecting” them. They don’t feel protected. They feel afraid. As an adult, this was eye-opening for me, and a reminder not to keep my kids and my students in the dark. For kids reading the book, they will feel very seen and understood, and know that they are not alone in this regard.
I was surprised that while Merci’s experience as a Latina felt authentic and seamless, it wasn’t really a focus of the book. I’ve come to expect MG and YA books about Latinx characters to focus heavily on racism, code-switching, the immigrant experience, or some combination. But this isn’t one of those books. Sure, Merci’s family has different traditions, but what separates her from her classmates has more to do with income and class than it does culture or nationality*. If anything, the new kid from Minnesota is more of an outsider than Merci. This was actually quite refreshing, and I think it’s good to have books about kids-of-color that don’t focus on race as it can help with normalization.
*Yes, I realize that race/ethnicity/nationality is often directly tied to class, my point is just that race isn’t a major theme in the novel.
Overall the writing for this book was AMAZING. I mean, there’s a reason it won the Newberry Award. I’m not here to contest its deserving at ALL. My experience as a librarian is that the blurb and cover don’t catch kids’ attention (they seem to prefer funny or exciting books), but I think if you could get it in their hands they would really enjoy it. This would make an excellent novel study for seventh or eighth graders. Highly recommend.