Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, July 12, 2018

Thursday, July 12, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Merci Suárez Changes Gears

Candlewick Press: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Candlewick Press: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Candlewick Press: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Candlewick Press: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina

Meg Medina's newest middle-grade novel, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, is as funny and moving as its protagonist is enterprising, bright and forthright. It's a work that perfectly depicts the loving, flawed nature of family and the humorous, often confusing and sometimes painful experience of moving from childhood to adolescence.

Merci's family lives in "three flat-top houses" that sit side by side on their South Florida street. Merci, her 17-year-old brother, Roli, and her parents live in the left-most of the three "pink triplets"; her Abuela ("manager of the Catastrophic Concerns Department" in their family) and Lolo live in the middle; and her tía Inéz and twin sons Axel and Tomás live on the right. "Roli calls it the Suárez Compound" but Merci's Mami "hates that name"--she calls it Las Casitas, the little houses, instead. Merci, 11, has grown up on this communal property, her family life sprawling through all three homes where they share meals, tell stories and divide up the labor: "When it comes to helping," Merci thinks, "the motto around here is family or bust." Which means that when the twins--whom "even the friendly librarians downtown have banned... from story time,"--need babysitting, Merci is asked to step in; her tía thinks no one "in their right mind would hire a stranger to watch their kids when they have relatives around."

One of the many joys that come alongside the many annoyances of this life is Merci's relationship with her grandfather. For as long as she can remember, Lolo has been in charge of walking the family's children home from school. "In fact," Merci remembers, "it used to be my favorite part of the day when I was still at Manatee Elementary. We'd stroll, nice and slow, so I could tell him all that had happened each day, especially the highlights from recess." But last year, because Mami "is all about getting a good education," Merci joined Roli at Seaward Pines Academy, a fancy private school out of walking distance. Both are there on scholarship and have to maintain a B-plus average as well as doing, in Merci's words, "sixty whole hours of free labor every year." This is a piece of cake for genius Roli, whom you "can practically smell the future Nobel Prize on," but school doesn't come as naturally to Merci.

Beyond being a scholarship student who has weird living arrangements and gets driven (extremely slowly) to school by her newly permitted brother, Merci also has an eye that "strays sometimes" (especially when she's stressed) and is having difficulty adjusting to sixth grade. "I really wanted it to be fun," she tells Lolo, "better than fifth grade, anyway. But there are all these classes to keep track of now." To make matters worse, Miss McDaniels has decided that Merci should join the student ambassador program--who better to introduce new students to the school than someone who is relatively new? Merci, who really just wants to mind her own business during her community service time, does not want to be a Sunshine Buddy. She especially does not want to be paired with Michael Clark from Minnesota, "the biggest and whitest boy [she's] ever seen." What Merci does want to do is to try out for the soccer team. Merci is a great athlete--her Papi even lets her play soccer with him and his adult friends--and she's sure she can make the team. But, somehow, Mami keeps forgetting to sign her permission slip.

And Mami isn’t the only one forgetting things: Lolo is acting weird. When Merci comes home from school to find Lolo locked in the back seat of a police cruiser, she asks him what's going on. "It was a little misunderstanding," he says, "It's these glasses!... They're terrible!" which makes no sense to her. What do glasses have to do with being in a police car? According to the twins, Lolo went to pick them up from school and tried to pick up the other set of twins--who are Vietnamese. Merci doesn't think bad glasses are a solid excuse for a mistake like that, and she remembers the time Lolo was convinced he had been pickpocketed at the bakery, only to have Abuela find his wallet in the garden. It feels to Merci like the adults know what's going on with Lolo, like they have a secret, but Abuela believes "[c]hildren don't need to hear life's ugliness" and Mami is being tight-lipped. Merci doesn't understand what's happening with Lolo, she doesn't understand why some of the girls want to hang with the boys, she doesn't understand why Mami won't give her permission to play soccer....

Merci Suárez Changes Gears balances all of Merci's issues with the apparent ease one has come to expect of Meg Medina. Merci's voice is spirited, quick-witted and unmistakably 11 years old. A sixth-grade scholarship kid in a wealthy school with a genius brother, a quirky family and a grandfather with Alzheimer's is a lot, but Medina makes it seem effortless. She layers the funny on top of the painful on top of the beautiful on top of the bewildering--and expresses the raw, sensitive nature of being. Merci and the Suárezes are supremely lovable and, while the book has a gratifying end, readers will surely want more time at Las Casitas. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Candlewick Press, $16.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 9-12, 9780763690496, September 11, 2018

Candlewick Press: Don't miss these other acclaimed titles by MEG MEDINA!

Meg Medina: The Crazy Abundance of Family

photo: Petite Shards Productions

Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban-American author who writes picture books as well as middle-grade and young adult fiction. She is the 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré Author Award and a 2013 Cybils Award winner for her YA novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She also received the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for her picture book Tía Isa Wants a Car. When she is not writing, Medina works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and literacy. Her newest work for middle-grade readers, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, will be published September 11, 2018, by Candlewick. Medina lives with her family in Richmond, Va.

It's no easy task to so beautifully capture the voice of a sixth grader. How did you create Merci's sound?

Writing Merci was about capturing a girl who is starting to ask hard questions, but who isn't yet jaded or broken. I loved inhabiting her for all those months that I was writing. She is everything I love about 11-year-old girls--right before they are swept up in the more harrowing parts of teen life. She's plain-spoken and full of grandiose plans that may or may not be based in reality. She's smart and funny, even when she's not trying. She's also struggling to understand how to navigate the complicated social world of middle school. 

How do you know what the everyday life of a contemporary sixth grader looks like?

For me, the essence of a character doesn't actually come from anything I notice about contemporary sixth graders. It comes from what I know about how it felt to be 11 and 12. It's heavily based on memory and on how closely I can access real memories and emotions of that time in my life.

But you're right that a book has to feel that it belongs to its time--that's 2018, not decades in the past. So to help keep things fresh, I study kids when they least expect it. I watch them interact at the grocery store with their parents when they've been dragged there against their will. I notice the dynamics of the loud globs of kids at the bus stop near my house every morning. When I do a school visit, I take in the cat-ear headbands, the chipped nail polish, how they hold their backpacks, how the boys still try to sit together at a table, who falls asleep.... The other thing I notice is how school life looks now, everything from safety drills to technology use and lunch schedules. I register all of it. 

Where did you get the idea for Merci's tightknit, emotionally (and literally) close family?

It's really the only way I understand family: rambling, interfering, loving and a mess. For the Suárezes I specifically went to an old memory of my mother's cousins in Florida who lived in three houses side by side. The grandmother, Julia, lived in one. Her daughter, Julita, lived next door and then the granddaughter, Julie, had the last one, as I remember. Over the years they had built paths and additions on the houses so that they were actually connected, like a huge stucco compound. I wanted to capture that sense of how Latinx people experience family in all its crazy abundance.

What spoke to you about having Merci deal with senility and an aging grandparent? Why this particular story now?

Part of it was personal. Around the time that I was writing this book, my own family was struggling. My mother came to live her last year of life with us as she battled cancer--at the same time that we also had my 90-year-old mother-in-law and my 85-year-old tía Isa living with us. The stress of having three elderly ladies in a home with our three teenagers was brutal, to be honest. It was a situation based on our cultural expectations, on love and a sense of responsibility, but it was still very hard.

I picked Alzheimer's for the novel because I'd also had the experience of watching my uncle Diego succumb to its effects. I witnessed my cousin and his family throughout their incredible journey to love and care for Diego, even as he disappeared before our very eyes.  It was the nature of change that struck me so profoundly. I came to see that Alzheimer's erases us and our relationships, and the saddest relationships lost are those with the people we love most.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

Well, this book is both funny and bitterly sad, which is the way life is, I suppose. I want them to laugh deep from the belly at the ridiculous things that happen to Merci at school--because, let's face it, the world of an 11-year-old can be silly. But I want readers to think about change and the role that love and family play in how we face even the hardest changes.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell Shelf Awareness readers?

Only that you never know which of your crazy life experiences will help you write a book. Case in point: I never thought anything useful could come from my teaching days, when I allowed a kid to be plastered for a mask-making project only to learn that we'd forgotten to protect his rather full eyebrows. (Wherever you are, Jeremy Soto, I'm still sorry, and I hope they grew back okay.) The good news? Merci Suarez Changes Gears is better thanks to our disaster. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

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