Thursday, February 7, 2019

Book Review: Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (2018)

Mercedes (Merci) Suárez lives in Las Casitas with her parents and older brother, Roli, her Tia Ines, her five-year-old twin cousins, and her grandparents. She attends a private school on scholarship, making her something of an outsider with her peers, a problem which is compounded when Merci is assigned to be the buddy of a new boy on whom her rival, Edna Santos, has a crush. At home, Merci is also struggling to understand the behavior of her grandfather, Lolo, who has begun to behave strangely as his Alzheimer's disease progresses. As her situations at home and school come to a head, Merci will need to learn to adapt to change, a lesson she finds difficult to embrace.

I have to admit to being surprised that this book was awarded the Newbery Medal. While it's a perfectly fine story, there is very little about the straightforward writing style or predictable plot that I would call distinctive. The only thing that really sets it apart is that it's a diverse book:  Merci's family is not white, they speak Spanish, and they have a living situation (three houses side by side) that isn't common in the predominant American culture. Therefore, my guess is that this book was given this award based more on its championing of diversity than on its merits as a work of literature. While I understand that diversity is now considered by many to be an indicator of quality, I don't really buy into that idea, so I was disappointed not to find something new and fresh in the style or characterization in this book that stood out as special. While I don't like seeing the awards go to political books, I also don't like seeing them go to mediocre books for political reasons, and it seems like that might be what happened here. 

Had this book not been the Newbery winner, I am fairly certain I would have judged it less harshly. It truly is a solid novel, despite the cliched dementia storyline involving Merci's grandfather, and the cliched mean behavior of middle school girls. Though the storyline is not that original, it is presented in an appealing way, and I know I would have enjoyed this book when I was in sixth grade. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Spanish phrases, none of which were translated in the text (something that can often be done awkwardly), but all of which I figured out either based on the little Spanish I remember from high school or just based on context. Merci and her brother Roli also have a very positive relationship despite the gap in their ages, and it was nice to see them getting along and supporting each other.

Still, the more I look for those hallmarks of distinction, the more flaws I notice instead: the bike metaphor that doesn't quite work, the lack of a meaningful connection between the grandfather storyline and the friendship storyline, the unresolved tension surrounding Merci's decision to lie about her grandfather taking a fall, etc. Thematically, this may be the book many readers have been looking for, but in terms of literary merit,  it's a good book, but not a great one. While I think there is a definite place for it on the shelves of libraries serving middle schoolers this year and next, I don't see as clear a place for it in the canon of children's literature in the long-term. 


  1. You are the only person I know with the courage to call this out publicly ("While I don't like seeing the awards go to political books, I also don't like seeing them go to mediocre books for political reasons, and it seems like that might be what happened here."). Thank you for that! I haven't read this book, but I must admit to having suspected that it might be the case.

  2. Thanks for your honest opinion about this book. I do think we have higher expectations of award-winning books (as we should), and it's hard not to take that into account when you review.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction