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merci suárez changes gears

1 february 2019

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, which recently won Meg Medina the 2019 Newbery Medal, is a richly-textured and sensitive realistic novel.

Merci Suárez is narrator as well as title character, and like most protagonists in prestige children's fiction of the moment, she is eleven years old – old enough to be high-verbal, athletic, socially resourceful, and self-aware, even old enough to like boys, sort of, but distinctly clueless about everything that society, or at least children's literature, codes as "adult." Sexuality, drugs, smoking and drinking, porn, even bad language are strictly absent from her purview. In that respect, Merci Suárez isn't very realistic – no sixth-graders are that PG – but the world that Medina builds rings true in many other respects.

There isn't much plot to report on. Merci Suárez Changes Gears is definitely one of those children's novels where the only story is "kid gets a year older." Unfortunately, her grandfather Lolo is getting a year older too, and that means a year deeper into Alzheimer's. The reader, I daresay even an 11-year-old reader, tips to this development long before Merci does, which adds to its poignancy. Lolo's decline is well-drawn, and the novel concludes with information on how to learn more about Alzheimer's.

Merci Suárez is a scholarship kid at a tony, progressive private school. Her family is not poor by any means – they own three houses and a painting business, and Merci's mother is a physical therapist – but there's comfortable and there's privileged, and privileged they are not. The setting is Florida, and Merci's family is Cuban, but ethnic prejudice does not seem part of her experience. Much of the novel takes place at school, and the general multicultural acceptance of this school also rings true, as does the dynamic of being the least-well-off kid in a community of the very wealthy. Social commentary in Medina's novel is subtle, and hot-button issues are as elided as sex and drugs.

If I seem lukewarm about Merci Suárez, it's my own tastes at work. I prefer children's books that are more energetic, that have more dramatic plots, that don't patiently explain their worlds in quite so much detail. (I prefer adult books like that, too.) Merci Suárez Changes Gears is tasteful, not as dull as you might fear, and well-crafted. But I doubt that I will re-read it – unless it's to comment on the several sports scenes in the book (soccer and baseball, in particular). In that respect, Medina's novel participates in the growing respectability of children's sport stories, or at least sport episodes, that has figured in several prestige fictions in recent years.

Medina, Meg. Merci Suárez Changes Gears. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2018.