2019 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
Merci Suárez Changes Gears
(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of importance for the Christian audience.)
Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina is the recipient of the ALA’s 2019 Newbery Award.1 In under a decade, Ms. Medina’s writing—from picture books to YA novels—has been honored with two Pura Belpré awards, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal, as well as being named finalist for other awards of note. Merci Suárez Changes Gears touches on contemporary topics with a story that is both multicultural and intergenerational and that includes relationships from mean girl bullying to challenging family relationships. Merci’s growth as a character is complicated, and her actions are sometimes less than commendable, albeit honest and understandable. Hers is both a school story and a family story.
At school, Merci is a scholarship student who does community service—painting the gym with her father and serving as a Sunshine Buddy—to defray some of the cost of attending a posh private school. Her brother, Roli, is far more intelligent than she and could attend on his academic merits, but he works in the science lab in exchange for his education. Merci contends with typical coming-of-age concerns that include mean, smart, and arrogant classmates, along with simply relating as a Cuban-American girl to students from other backgrounds. She carries the baggage any new sixth-grade student might carry, which means the school parts of the book are fairly formulaic. On occasion, some topics and words lean toward the crass, the cheeky, or even the gently profane.
At home, Merci is the daughter of hard-working parents—Papi and Mami—and the granddaughter of her beloved Abuela and Lolo. Abuela is the head of the family Catastrophic Concerns Department, and Lolo shares his snacks, rides bikes with Merci, and calls her his “preciosa”—“precious one.” She is also the niece of Tía Inés, which means she is the unpaid babysitter of Tía’s rambunctious twin boys at the expense of things Merci would rather be doing, because it’s "family or bust."2 The three families live side-by-side-by-side in three small houses Mami calls Las Casitas. The family interactions are warm and loud and include both sibling rivalry and a mixed bag of kindness and cruelty. The overarching issue at home is that something is wrong with Lolo. Merci knows this much, but no one will tell her what is happening, even though one of the family rules is that there are no secrets. Ultimately Merci learns that Lolo has Alzheimer’s disease. Roli tells her "[h]is brain is shrinking and it’s changing him,"3 and Roli answers every question Merci poses, but she remains saddened that "[e]veryone kept it a secret from me."4
There is plenty to love about Merci’s story. There are scenes that tug at the heartstrings and others that tickle the funny bone. Problem-solving skills emerge under coercion from the various adults in the story. Her family is tight-knit and loving. The relationship between Merci and Lolo is perhaps the strongest connection in the book, and it is particularly lovely. At the same time, the honesty of this grandparent/grandchild relationship may be painful for readers whose own grandparents are slipping away. Would that they, like Merci, have families who could say Lolo’s words with equal candor: "I am frightened too. But … we are strong enough to face this together."5
Numerous Spanish words and phrases lend authenticity to the multicultural story, but for the non-Spanish speaker, these terms are not always clear within the context nor can they all be found in an online translator. The result is that the reader is sometimes pushed out of the story, which might result in the reader’s losing interest altogether.
While most books for middle grade readers are plot driven with character growth a lesser element, some books are character driven with an engaging plot as a lesser element. This book is a mixture of character growth with a lot of activity at home and school, but to call it either character driven or plot driven seems a bit disingenuous. And that it is not strongly one or the other may predispose the book to not fully connecting with the target readers. Surviving sixth grade as a misfit drives the plot, such as it is, but it may not be a quest big enough to engage readers to the final page.
In Merci’s home, Catholic by culture more than by faith, she struggles with the changes in her grandfather, with the challenges at school, and with dreams that are beyond her reach. It is these topics which circle the theme that life does not play out the way she wishes, that there is little power anywhere to make changes, and that she must simply accept what comes her way. Mami tells her, “Things happen over time. … We need to respect how things change and adjust.6 These ideas would make interesting talking points, especially from the perspective of a Christian believer who accepts that all of these concepts rest on the cushion of Providence, that the Lord loves His children, and that, according to Mark 7:37, He does “all things well.”
This Newbery winner fails on some literary elements, and while it lacks the strength of message that might help some readers, it is not likely to harm them either. The merit of this book may be its potential to open discussions that lead to a better understanding of challenges, changes, and adjustments that are just a part of life.
2 Meg Medina. Merci Suárez Changes Gears (Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2018), 48.
3 Medina, 272.
4 Medina, 272.
5 Medina, 276.
6 Medina, 202.