Having just reviewed the 2018 Newbery medalist, the similarities and differences between the two books really pop. Both prominently feature interracial and multi-generational relationships; both deal with middle school bullying; both include adolescent awkwardness. But the contrasts are stark: Merci Suárez Changes Gears relies less on charm and humor and brings to the fore a realism and maturity that kept this reader engaged. I have a feeling its intended audience of 4th-6th graders would probably have more fun with Hello, Universe, but this one will undoubtedly provide more opportunity for growth.
Eleven-year-old Mercedes Suárez is just starting 6th grade at her private school in Florida. She's aware that this grade will be different, with its hall lockers and different classes, but she doesn't anticipate how much different it will be! For one thing, Merci is a scholarship student and as such has to do extra community service, like being a "sunshine buddy" to a new student in school. When Merci is assigned Michael, a new boy fancied by popular Edna Santos, she begins to experience Edna's jealousy and the pressures and pettiness that comes with it.
At home, Merci lives with her large Cuban family. She shares a room with her older brother Roli, helps her Papi with his painting business, enjoys her Aunt Tía's good cooking, tolerates her young cousins, and appreciates her grandmother Abuela's costumes. But she has a special relationship with her grandfather Lolo, with whom she shares most of her worries and dreams. So when he starts acting strangely—forgetting important things, falling off his bike, wandering off, or getting erratically angry—she is confused and hurt that her family (usually so honest and open) refuses to tell her what is going on.
I don't want to give any spoilers, but I loved a lot about this coming-of-age tale. Meg Medina gets to the heart of the confusion and change that comes with middle school. Her description of life in this family brims with cultural detail, the relationships and conversations come across as quite authentic, and the plot development are both realistic and satisfying. Its theme is also important (and beautifully stated): changes can be sad, and while you might wish everything could stay the same, staying the same means not changing, not growing up, and that is just as tragic.
Review by Eli Evans
Formerly home educated and now father of five, Eli loves discovering amazing books, new and old. The owner and manager of Exodus since 1998, his focus is on offering thoughtful and well-written books that inspire the imagination and promote creativity and diligence while living for God. Read more of his reviews here
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