Life's bitter sweet for Merci Suarez as she deals with trouble at home and school in this realistic, yet heart-warming children's novel.
Mercedes (Merci) Suárez is an eleven-year-old scholarship student, living with her large family in three modest houses (Las Casitas – the little houses) that sit side by side. Besides her parents and brother, Roli, there are her grandparents, Lolo and Abuela, her aunt Tía Inés and cousins Tomas and Axel.
Life as a scholarship student presents its own special demands: Merci must make sure her behaviour and grades are exceptional. A major challenge comes in the form of Edna Santos, a bossy, rich girl who runs the social life of her class. Edna's catchphrase is “no offence”, which she uses to preface her put downs. (“No offence is what Edna says before taking a hatchet to your feelings.”) When Merci is assigned tall, handsome Michael Clark as her Sunshine Buddy (school policy assigns new students with a buddy to help with orientation) Edna gets jealous and starts to cause havoc.
If school problems aren't enough, then there are secrets being kept at home. Merci's grandfather, Lolo, has been acting strangely. He is becoming forgetful and causing much stress in the tight knit family. Merci senses something is not quite right and when all is finally revealed, she feels betrayed.
Cuban-American children's writer Meg Medina has created a realistic, funny, heart-warming story about family and the dramas of school. The large cast of characters are well drawn and the dialogue is punchy and smart, without being brassy. The pushy Edna Santos is an absolute hoot, somewhat like Lucy Van Pelt out of the Peanuts cartoons. Despite her jealousy and deviousness, she's also a consummate socialite who is easy to like. Even Merci admits to her charms.
Merci manages to get through her difficult year and celebrate Christmas with her family at Las Casitas. Life may be difficult, full of unwanted change, but the closeness of her family, with its celebration of food, song and togetherness, ensures life will always have a certain sweetness.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina. Candlewick Press $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books