Merci Suarez Changes Gears has been on my To Be Read list for awhile and I’m glad I finally had a chance to read it. Merci Suarez is in 6th grade. She lives in Florida with her older brother, Roli, and her parents next door to her Tia Ines (and her twin boys) and her grandparents. The story follows Merci through her first semester in 6th Grade. Merci (and Roli) attend the Seward Pines Academy. Merci is beginning her 6th Grade year so she is transitioning from the elementary school where students have one teacher all day, to the middle school where she will now have a locker and different teachers for her various classes. Merci has plans to one day take over her father’s painting business and will often go along with him to some of his clients in order to get on-the-job training in every aspect of the business.
The shift from elementary to middle school is a big adjustment. It holds the ends and the beginnings of so many things that it is usually a confusing time for a young person to navigate. Merci Suarez Changes Gears is the story of how Merci does just that. In addition to dealing with the social and practical shifts that are happening in her school life, Merci’s grandfather, Lolo, is not behaving like his usual self. At a time when life feels like it’s being upended at school and with her peers, her foundation–her family–is also shifting beneath her feet.
We follow Merci through her first semester in 6th Grade. She deals with the relational bullying initiated by the ‘most popular’ girl in her class (Edna), her confusion over what ‘like’ means when it comes to 6th Grade romantic relationships, new friendships, her confusion, fear and feelings of desperate sadness over the changes happening in her beloved Lolo and her anger with the rest of her family for not sharing information about his condition. I think Merci is probably one of the most fully developed middle school characters I have ever encountered. The structure of the book is extraordinary in that it is carefully and densely plotted. The transitions are so deftly accomplished I was barely aware they were happening as I was reading. This makes the book an easy read without having the author resort to any kind of external manipulations in character or plot to get us from the beginning to the end.
The entire story of Merci Suarez Changes Gears is one of the most authentically voiced I have ever read. Merci’s story reads very believably–with one minor exception: there is a slapstick-like scene that happens in the classroom toward the end of the book that is lifted almost completely from the old 1966 film The Trouble with Angels (based on the book by Jane Trahey). Medina does make the scene work in the story but it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of Merci’s world.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears is an excellent independent or read-aloud (at home or in the classroom) for middle grade readers. The ending is realistic in that it doesn’t tie up all loose ends or find miracle fixes for all Merci’s problems. Merci says:
I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, no one does. But that’s OK.
I can handle it, I decide. It’s just a harder gear.