Release Date: September 11, 2018
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Page Count: Hardcover, 368 pages
Genre: Middle Grade, Hispanic Lit, Latino Lit
Appeal (in my opinion): Great for 5th – 6th grade boys and girls or any child entering middle school years and puberty. Any child experiencing a family member with Alzheimer’s Disease. Latino female main character.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Bookstagrammer Bits: Unknown – just read digital ARC at this time. Cuban/Latino culture items.
Conversations with Kids: Navigating middle school and changing dynamics of friends and boys/girls. Dealing with Alzheimer’s or Dementia in a family member. Navigating differences between friends and family.
Thoughtful, strong-willed sixth-grader Merci Suarez navigates difficult changes with friends, family, and everyone in between in a resonant new novel from Meg Medina.
Merci Suarez knew that sixth grade would be different, but she had no idea just how different. For starters, Merci has never been like the other kids at her private school in Florida, because she and her older brother, Roli, are scholarship students. They don’t have a big house or a fancy boat, and they have to do extra community service to make up for their free tuition. So when bossy Edna Santos sets her sights on the new boy who happens to be Merci’s school-assigned Sunshine Buddy, Merci becomes the target of Edna’s jealousy. Things aren’t going well at home, either: Merci’s grandfather and most trusted ally, Lolo, has been acting strangely lately — forgetting important things, falling from his bike, and getting angry over nothing. No one in her family will tell Merci what’s going on, so she’s left to her own worries, while also feeling all on her own at school. In a coming-of-age tale full of humor and wisdom, award-winning author Meg Medina gets to the heart of the confusion and constant change that defines middle school — and the steadfast connection that defines family.
I absolutely LOVED this book for so many reasons. As a mixed Mexican and American household, I want my children to have an appreciation for their Mexican heritage and culture but our family life primarily follows my Minnesotan/Scandinavian family traditions. It is discouragingly difficult to find Latino characters in books without heavy themes of immigration. There is a growing number of mixed families like ours and even 100% Latino heritage families that are 1st and 2nd and 3rd generation Americans now. It is essential to have children’s literature that reflects on the normal experience of growing up as a minority American and not the over-tired, politically hot topic of immigration. This book delivered.
Meg Medina effortlessly entwined this wonderful story with subtle references to Cuban and Latino culture like having a big meal at 3 o’clock and then having snacks in the evening and multi-generational family living with everyone taking care of each other. I also loved the description of the different food they eat for Thanksgiving and at (Christmas Eve) Nochebuena eating the meal at 11 p.m. and having the festivities go in to the wee hours of the morning. That is one of the cultural experiences that stands out in my mind the most from spending time with my husband’s Mexican family, compared to my Minnesota one. The way Medina describes every family celebration is brilliant because she makes them sound beautiful and festive while Merci’s voice is pointing out how she knows it is different than the other kids at school. Different but not “wrong.” I have to mention her one stereotype of a Minnesotan that made me laugh… When Merci’s Sunshine Buddy and new kid in school says “Uff-da.” Yes, I’ll admit…. we really DO say that in Minnesota =)
Medina managed to bring up negative stereotypes of Latinos without making them the focus of the story. Like when Merci and her Papi and Lolo (her grandfather) were painting bathrooms and she was looking at the fancy ballroom and ocean and the employee came up and asked what she was doing.
“She looks at me like I’m up to no good. This happens sometimes on our jobs. Some customers watch us, as if we might take things when they’re not looking.”
Another part reflecting on issues regarding Latino (or any minority) youth that is relevant right now is when Merci’s parents are discussing her going to the movie at night with her friends and decide her 17-year-old brother has to accompany her but even that makes them nervous because the theater is in an area where fights sometimes happen.
“I’ve heard them talk to him [older brother] before he takes the car. What to do if he’s stopped by police, where not to be, how your hands never go into your pockets.”
It was interesting to see the dynamic between the children of the grandfather versus how Merci related to him. How Merci’s dad and her aunt argue over whose turn it is to take their father to appointments and have conversations between themselves about “what is best” for their aging parents. I think that is a very real portrayal of a situation like that where family is dealing with an older and ailing parent. Merci notices this and reflects on how her parents are treating the grandparents as if they were children and her confusion about the role reversal.
I have to admit that this book made me cry in a few spots. The emotions were so true and raw and relatable for anyone that has dealt with a family member showing signs of memory loss. When Merci talked about being embarrassed about introducing her grandfather to her friends and wondering if we would do anything “weird.” And then her moments of anger with him. And sadness. Ugh. I am crying even as I write these reflections because I see my own mother repeating stories she told me the day before, stumbling more than she used to, misplacing items more and more frequently, forgetting the fact that we used to watch “Murder She Wrote” together every Sunday during my whole childhood, even though it is one of my most cherished growing up “routines” with her. Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia and the reality of losing someone piece by piece even though they are still physically with you is something that isn’t talked about in children’s literature despite the tens of thousands of children and their parents experiencing it. Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States with five million people currently living with the disease. Yet this is the first children’s book I’ve ever read that mentions the realities of the disease.
Finally, it is impossible to not appreciate the perfectly captured experience of entering middle school and all the moments of realization that sixth grade is very different from elementary school. The beginnings of puberty and training bras, the blooming of crushes and changing dynamic between boys and girls. Mean girls, making new friends, being left out, standing up against someone, disappointment and the ebb and flow of popularity and social dynamics.
“How does it work that the same Kids who followed Edna around all the time really seemed to like seeing her in trouble? How can somebody popular have so many people glad to see her crash? ‘Maybe like’ might be confusing, but ‘popular’ is even weirder. Turns out, it’s not the same thing as having friends at all.”
I highly recommend this book to anyone with a 5th – 6th grader as it brings up lots of potential conversations about middle school social struggles and even the emotions of going from one teacher to having many teachers. For children with a grandparent or family member suffering from Alzheimer’s or Dementia this book is a must read. The book has enough diversity of characters to appeal to all children, but is especially good for Latino children who may not have as much exposure to seeing characters that are “like” them.
Thank you to NetGalley and Candlewick Press for providing me with a free digital ARC in exchange for my honest review. I can’t wait for this to be released on September 11th so I can get a finished copy.
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