Merci Suárez Changes Gears

author: Meg Medina
Candlewick Press, 2018 
grades 4-7 
Cuban American

It’s the beginning of Mercedes (Merci) Suarez’s sixth grade year, and right away she notices big changes. There’s a new boy in class, just moved to South Florida from Minnesota, and Merci has been assigned to be his Welcome Buddy, but wealthy, popular classmate Edna Santos has set her sights on him. Merci’s older brother Roli has his driver’s license and will soon be leaving for college. Most ominous of all, though, are the changes in Merci’s beloved grandfather, Lolo, who forgets more and more, and now has begun to act strangely—fighting with loved ones and wandering off into traffic. All the older people in Merci’s extended family—all of whom live in three small adjacent houses they call Las Casitas—seem to know what’s going on but won’t tell her.

In this eventful year, Merci encounters bullying, feeling out of place because her private-school classmates can buy things her lower middle class family cannot, family responsibilities that keep her from trying out for sports teams (despite her athletic ability), and facing Lolo’s decline. More than anything else, Merci wants a new bicycle, but all her efforts to make money (or win a contest with a cash prize) end in failure. Nonetheless, the family that takes away is also the family that gives her more than she can imagine as they come together to understand and address a sad situation with no solution. In this novel for middle grade readers, veteran author Medina portrays a close-knit Cuban American family and the diversity of South Florida’s Cuban American community. Her use of humor leavens the serious subject matter while foreshadowing perils to come. For instance, in describing Roli’s attempts to drive, she writes,

Roli has only had his license for a few weeks and already we’ve lost a mailbox and two recycling bins to his skills behind the wheel. Even our cat, Tuerto, has learned to hide when he hears the jingle of car keys.

A determined, engaging protagonist and likeable, true-to-life secondary characters—not only Merci’s lovable family but also her classmates who sometimes hurt her yet have their redeeming qualities—make Merci Suarez Changes Gears a solid and satisfying read. 

*Highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 8/22/18)

This review first appeared in The Pirate Tree ( We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.

Soñadores // Dreamers

author: Yuyi Morales
illustrator: Yuyi Morales
translator (Spanish): Teresa Mlawer. 
Neal Porter Books / Holiday House, 2018 

On the cover, facing front, is a young Brown mama, in a white Mexican blusa with blue embroidered trim. With both hands holding her baby safely up against her body, this mama looks straight ahead. Her eyebrows are slightly raised and she is not smiling. Her expression is concerned and questioning, maybe a little fearful. 

The book’s spine bisects mama’s face and body. To her right and the cover’s left—on a bright background of embroidered Mexican flowers in blues, reds, pinks and yellows—is the south, the land she is leaving. On her left and the cover’s right, two flowers peek out from behind her. She and her baby are traveling north, to a place unknown.

Safe in the arms of his mama, a diapered Brown baby—slightly lighter-complected than his mama—is smiling and looking northward. With one tiny hand on his mama’s sleeve, his eyebrows slightly raised, he is secure and curious. This baby’s eyes are focused on the book’s greenish and cottony-soft title. He is a soñadorcito, a little dreamer, open to all the new things around him. Above him a swallow flies into the clouds; and almost below him a monarch butterfly alights on a flower to take in the energy-rich nectar that will sustain its long journey. Guided by the swallow and the butterfly, the mama and her baby—and their dreams—are headed north.

And behind them all shine the rays of a bright sun.

In 1994, Yuyi and her two-month-old baby journeyed from their home town of Xalapa to San Francisco. Soñadores // Dreamers is Yuyi’s story of how and why they came here (“migrantes, tú y yo”) and how the magical place they eventually found—the San Francisco Public Library—changed their lives. Yuyi has told this, her “immigrant” story, many times to many different audiences. She was a shy young mother then, coming to a place where she did not understand the foreign language—English. Where (“cometimos muchos errores”) she did not know that a public fountain was not a place for her son to bathe and play (“¡Ay!”). And where she and her baby became caminantes, walking all over the city. This shy young mother eventually discovered “un lugar que nunca antes habíamos visto”—the glorious public library, a place (“Misterioso. Fantástico. Increíble. Sorprendente.”) that held thousands of books, a place in which kind strangers allowed her and her baby to stay all day, and—with something called a “library card”—even take home as many books as she could carry! For free!

It’s here, as she says and writes, that “Los libros se convirtieron / en nuestra lengua. / Los libros se convirtieron / en nuestro hogar. / Los libros se convirtieron / en nuestro vida. / Y tú y yo / aprendimos / a leer, / a hablar, / a escribir, / y / a hacer / oír nuestras voces.” (“Books became our language. / Books became our home. / Books became our lives. / We learned to read, / to speak, / to write, / and / to make / our voices heard.”)

As she checked out what must have been thousands of books, Yuyi taught herself how to make books: how to paint with various media, create handmade paper out of scraps, and bind books with string. As a stranger in a strange land, learning to transform paper and ink and scraps and string into storybooks, she began to see herself as someone with a voice and stories to tell.

As the pages turn, Mama Yuyi is making her own books and becoming more proficient and more confident in her art(s), and baby Kelly has become a toddler, helping his mother and drawing on his own as well.

Yuyi’s full-bleed double-page spreads are luminous. After creating the initial artwork with acrylics and pen on paper, she photographed and scanned in things that were meaningful to her: her studio floor, the comal on which she grills her quesadillas, her childhood drawings, a brick from her house, one of her chairs, a metal sheet, leaves and plants from her garden in Xalapa, hand-painted pants she had made for Kelly, a traditional wool skirt from Chiapas, and much, much more. Each spread becomes, in effect, a gorgeous giant collage of Yuyi’s life and work. 

As well, Yuyi has incorporated into her art and text a voluminous collection of titles and covers of her favorite picture books, many of which are favorites of mine as well. (I was stunned to see, for instance, Antonio Skármeta’s The Composition, a little known and important picture book about the dilemma of a young boy during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.) 

On the last spread of the English version (left) and the Spanish one (right) is this:
We are stories.
We are two languages.
We are lucha.
We are resilience.
We are hope.
We are dreamers,
soñadores of the world.
Somos historias.
Somos dos lenguas.
Somos lucha.
Somos tenacidad.
Somos esperanza.
Somos soñadores,
soñadores del mundo.
Yuyi wrote her autobiographical story in her second language, and Mlawer then translated it into Spanish. Although I would prefer to have seen Yuyi’s story in her own Mexican vernacular Spanish, I can understand the publisher’s wish to make the Spanish “universal.”

Both Soñadores and Dreamers are indeed a song of struggle and tenacity and hope and dreams—a song that becomes who immigrants and refugees are, rather than what they have or don’t have—Somos lucha. Somos tenacidad. Somos esperanza. Somos soñadores. Both are *highly recommended for all home, school, and library collections.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 8/13/18)

Thank you to the great Noam Szoke, Diseñador Extraordinario, for his expertise, not to mention his patience. 

Note: Yuyi Morales is a kind, generous, multi-talented soul, and I wondered why, some 20 years after she and her baby arrived here, she decided to write and publish this, her autobiographical “immigration” story. Yuyi’s honesty and generosity extends to our interview. Readers can find it below. 


Beverly: When we first met in 2013, you were reading and performing Niño Wrestles the World to an audience of very young children in a public library in Oakland. As I remember, you were interacting with them in both Spanish and English, and they were transfixed on you and the images in the book. In places—especially when you dramatically and hilariously voiced Niño as he battled the monstrous imaginary enemies—the children were screaming with laughter, and their parents and library staff were delighted with your performance as well. What do you remember about that time in your life? 

Yuyi: I have lived in the USA as an immigrant for 20 years already and I am currently working in my studio in my town of birth, Xalapa, Mexico. My life is divided nowadays, as I constantly travel between Mexico and the USA to do my work and to be close to people I love in both places. I feel like I am a constant immigrant, like the monarch butterflies, or the swallows, or the free-tail bats (and many other animals) that every year make their way between Mexico and the USA. My own constant migration sustains me and my work—my heart always divided between two lands, and it is in the USA where I get to have a conversation with readers and have moments like the one you describe, where children and I get together to discover, share, and even scream with joy at the power of stories and books.

What were your thoughts as you first crossed the border, as a young mother with your baby, speaking one language; and what are your thoughts now, being able to travel back and forth as a talented and established artist and children’s book author—fluent in two languages? What changed for you and what about you remains the same? 

I was actually pretty nervous. While I was pregnant I had already been denied a tourist visa to come and meet my future baby’s family, and when I finally crossed the border—carrying papers to solicit entry with a fiancé visa—I was mentally prepared to be denied entry again. Once inside the USA, I got to meet my son’s family and I had a wedding, required by my visa, in which I didn't understand anything of what was said during the ceremony. But until that time, not speaking English hadn’t bothered me because I was in the USA visiting for only a few days and soon I would go back home to my life—or so I thought. Soon after my wedding, I learned that the visa I had been granted was not a “visiting” visa but an “immigrant” visa, which gave me the right to live in the USA—a right I was required to exercise. From that moment on, my lack of English, and unexpectedly having to make a home as a new mother in another country, became a journey I felt completely unprepared and insufficient for.

Nowadays, when I travel between the USA and Mexico, every time I present my citizenship papers at the immigration booth, I realize how fortunate and privileged I am to be able to call Mexico and the USA, both, my homes. But it took me 18 years to arrive at such a place.

For you and your baby, crossing the border involved walking across the bridge between Mexico and the US. Separating from your people, language and culture was emotionally difficult, of course. Now, for others, crossing remains all these things and is also much more dangerous. What message, if any, would you send to people on this side who may believe Trump’s reductive rhetoric about immigrants and refugees? What message would you send to the many parents and children whom this administration has forcefully separated from each other?

When my son and I entered the USA we were actually welcomed, and along the journey many people extended their hand to us—and people’s support became even more apparent when we discovered the public library. There were librarians who in doing their jobs changed my life completely. Nowadays the discourse about immigrants is so pernicious that we have become the new “boogeymen.” The Trump administration has linked the image of the immigrant to words such as crime, rape, stealing, taking what others have worked for, violence, and so many other scary terms that immigrants have become the new subhuman of whom a whole country must get rid, turn away, and exterminate rather than welcome or aid. 

I am so saddened, so enraged by this hateful rhetoric and the recent actions of separating families and criminalizing immigrants, refugees and amnesty seekers, and my helplessness multiplies every time I see people supporting these reductionist beliefs. At some points, my frustration has been so high that it has become difficult for me even to do my work, to make the books I so much love to create. But then I believe in the power of books as a way of hearing and listening to the voices of the most vulnerable ones, and with Soñadores // Dreamers I am hoping to extend an invitation for immigrants to make their voices heard through their own stories.
How do you see your stories and art engaging with people from both sides of the border? Especially, how does your story and art connect with the personal stories of other migrants and immigrants coming from Mexico and Central America? How do you see their hopes and dreams connecting with yours? What would you like to tell them?

Through all these years, as I have been sharing my books and stories, I have been meeting and talking with immigrant families, and whenever they would ask me how I had entered the USA, I could see that even in our different journeys we all had something in common. We often come heartbroken for having to leave behind our places of birth; difficult places sometimes, but to us they are places that define us and that we also love. 

And in coming to a new country we are often perceived as if we have come to steal what others have worked hard for. We are seen as invaders, takers, the ones who don’t have anything to give. This is absolutely untrue! We immigrants and refugees have so much already. And we bring all we are with us.

I would like to tell these families that all of their stories are important, and I want to work with families and children so that they can tell their own stories. It is part of the purpose of Soñadores // Dreamers.

Why did you create Soñadores //Dreamers and what subliminal messages did you think about transmitting through its creation? When you say, “Somos soñadores del mundo,” to whom are you referring and whom are you including?

As much as I like to tell stories through books—and my agent had talked with me about the need for us, as authors, to share our immigrant stories—I had never thought about making my own story into a book. And when the primaries began and then candidate Trump made attacks on immigrants a main part of his campaign, and then he won the election, I felt a big emptiness of purpose, I felt unable to work anymore. 

And I felt that my story wasn’t important. After all, I didn’t cross the desert through a dangerous journey, I didn’t enter undocumented, I had a new family who wanted me to be in the USA and were finding out how I could enter. And although in my heart it was devastating having to stay unexpectedly in the USA, I also knew that I had many advantages that most immigrants don’t have when they try to come here.

It was then that my editor and agent tapped into something I had not considered myself, and it is that my story matters, too. You know? As they encouraged me to make my immigrant journey into a picture book for young readers, there was another element I thought about: In my crossing borders, I had not done it alone. I had come with a very young baby who, together with me, had to grow and learn to thrive in a new land. The message that I wanted to bring across in Soñadores // Dreamers is something that has taken me a long time to realize and be able to put into words: that it is a fallacy that we immigrants come to a new land to take everything and give back nothing. To me it is important to uncover my own learning and to share what I have come to understand: that all of us who come to a new country bring with us amazing gifts to create a better life and a better world for everybody. Somos soñadores del mundo and we bring regalos.
¡Ningún ser humano es ilegal! (To be human is never illegal!) What does this mean to you, personally and politically?

To brand a human as illegal is an act of violence and oppression. It is a way to snatch the humanity from people in order to justify the violence acted upon them. We must fight against this labeling of people for the purpose of reducing their humanity and making it easier to wage a war against immigrants and refugees. There is much work to do.