author: Meg Medina
Candlewick Press, 2018
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. It’s highly recommended.
This review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.