I adore Meg Medina's YA novels. I feel like all of them (especially Burn Baby Burn) do not get the love and accolades they fully deserve. I was so excited when I discovered she was writing a MG novel. The switch from YA to MG is not as easy as it would first appear, but Medina also has two delightful picture books to her name, so I knew she had the range. I was over the moon when she won the Newbery even though I had not yet read Merci Suárez Changes Gears. It couldn't have happened to a better author. Now that I have read the book, I know it won on its merits.
Merci is a 6th grader at a private school in southern Florida. Unlike the majority of her classmates, Merci doesn't take fancy vacations or have a big house or own a boat or two. She is a scholarship student. Her family is hard-working, but definitely not rich. Merci works hard and is smart, but knows she doesn't compare to her older brother in the genius department. Merci loves to play soccer, spend time with her Lolo, and paint for her family's business. Her life suddenly has a lot of confusing changes as she starts 6th grade, has to take on some community service she is disinterested in, and has family drama she doesn't quite understand.
Merci is an excellent character. She is the perfect book version of a 6th grader. She is so perfect it was easy to lose sight of the fact that she was a book character. She makes some poor decisions, acts on impulse, doesn't see herself or others clearly, avoids some responsibilities, and feels things strongly. There are points in the book when she's not necessarily likable, but there was never a point when I wasn't completely on her side. Even when she was being her most dramatic or petty, I understood her motivations and emotions so well. And my anger was directed at the people who were causing her emotions. I can only imagine how much more invested in her life reader's in the target audience will be. I loved how Merci's problems were so fully relatable too. Middle school is a time of massive transition for everyone. Friendships shift as do adult expectations of you. It is often sudden and doesn't take into consideration all the hormonal shifts happening at the same time. Medina uses this to showcase Merci's struggles not only with school changes but also at home. Her brother is a senior, so he will be leaving soon. Her grandfather is acting strange: forgetting things, wandering off, and falling more. All the adults in Merci's family are worried and stressed, which is, of course, affecting Merci too. Especially as no one is explaining anything to her.
What really sets this novel apart is the community aspect of it. Merci is always in a tight community. Her school community is small, and there is quite a bit of forced (and natural) camaraderie there. Her family is her most important community though. Merci lives in a house next to her grandparents' house which is next to the house of her Tía and two young cousins. As she says toward the end, she lives in her house but the rest is sort of flexible. There is no knocking. The food in one house is food for everyone. The closeness of the family is shown in all of its hard moments and its wonderful, strong ones.
The school part of the book was particularly strong for me. As a teacher, I could actually see all these kids as real people who I could see interacting in the ways kids actually act. A lot of contemporary MG books dealing with realistic elements in schools have an almost after school special feel about them. Like the adults writing them are seeing kids' interactions through the long lens of their memories and not seeing them as they are now. Medina gets the way kids actually interact and all the layers of and webs of their social interactions. It isn't simple. Sixth grade is a time when for various reasons friendships undergo a major shift. Often it isn't so clear cut and simple as, "this person was my friend and now they'r not". Merci is trying to fit in, to find her place at this school she's already been at a year. The shifting dynamics everyone is undergoing makes that more of a challenge. Medina faces the complexities of MG social interactions head on with realism and true heart.
I will be enthusiastically recommending Merci Suarez Changes Gears to all my students.