Newbery winner Meg Medina tells a warm, witty family tale

In ‘Merci Suarez Changes Gears,’ a girl copes with problems in middle school and at home. | Review
Author Meg Medina
Author Meg Medina [ Petite Shards Productions ]
Published Oct. 31, 2019

The middle school years are never easy, but for a scholarship student at a fancy private school they can be even tougher. That’s especially true if you’re friends (sort of) with one of those girls who likes to start a sentence with “No offense, but” and then offend you.

But that’s not the only problem the narrator of Merci Suarez Changes Gears has to deal with — in fact, by the end of fall semester, snobby Edna will seem like the least of her worries. Like a lot of middle-schoolers, Merci is a wisecracking kid who bounces between wanting to grow up and wishing she could stay a child. In this warm and charming novel by Meg Medina, Merci‘s family keeps her steady when her world turns scary.

Like Merci’s family, Medina is Cuban-American. She has published six books, three of them picture books and two YA novels. Merci Suarez Changes Gears, for middle-grade readers, won the 2019 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

In a South Florida neighborhood, Merci lives in a row of three identical pink houses, Las Casitas. She and her supersmart older brother, Roli, live in one with their parents. In the middle house are her beloved grandparents, Abuela and Lolo, and in the third casita are her Tía Inés and her little cousins, the whirlwind twins Tomas and Axel.

Merci starts the school year hoping no one will find out she and her brother earned their tuition by helping their dad, a painting contractor, spruce up the school. She’s proud of her hard-working parents (Mami is a physical therapist), but she knows some of the other students at Seaward Pines Academy will look down their noses. She’s also worried about being assigned as a Sunshine Buddy (a kind of obligatory friend) to a new boy from the exotic locale of Minnesota; she’d really rather not think about boys at all. But her school worries take second place when Lolo, whom she has been close to all her life, begins to make odd mistakes, take falls and forget things.

Whether Merci is dealing with the intricacies of middle school social hierarchy or a serious crisis, Medina gives her an engaging, witty voice in this believable portrait of a strong, supportive family.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears

By Meg Medina

Candlewick Press, 355 pages, $16.99

Times Festival of Reading

Meg Medina will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 10 a.m. in Pippenger auditorium. Free.