by Meg Medina
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
I was able to snag this one on Monday, right after it was announced as the Newbery winner but before it headed out on its rounds to all the librarians and other people who keep tabs with such things, and was able to finish it by last night. Phew! Merci Suarez is a 6th grade scholarship student at a swanky private school where she doesn’t always fit in. She lives in a small house right next to her aunt’s house and her grandparents’ house. Intergenerational living was part of Medina’s inspiration for this story, and it was really cool to see this portrayed in a kids’ book. I think it’s something that not many white Americans get to see, and in our blind allegiance to individuality, we can look down on it and not see the benefits. As Medina says, and Merci echoes, sometimes the loss of privacy between more distant family members can be hard, but what’s true at least in Merci’s case is that her overall extended family is a rock solid unit, which serves them well when times get hard.
Some of those times include helping take care of her twin 5-year-old cousins, which Merci resents, especially as she is trying to save up money for a new bike and wants to try out for the soccer team. But some of those times are about her grandfather Lolo’s decline into Alzheimer’s. I most appreciated Merci’s deep breath and taking the plunge into naming it with her new friends when they come over, instead of hiding it and being miserable and, as she says, leading to lies. Her family has a firm belief in telling the truth, which it turns out only Lolo is willing to break – to keep Merci from knowing about the Alzheimer’s. My heart broke for Lolo, wanting his beloved Preciosa to stay innocent and their relationship to go unchanged, and for Merci, who like many sixth-graders, is on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, and is very hurt by being treated like her 5-year-old cousins. Her older brother, Roli, is in on the truth, and is the one who finally tells her, after a particularly bad episode with Lolo shatters any illusions she may have had about what was going on.
I think this will be a hugely important book to kids whose families are grappling with Alzheimer’s disease. Issues of class difference are also dealt with very well; Merci’s parents are not well-off, but you’re not beaten over the head with it. Merci also deals with a mean girl at school, Edna Santos, who gets her just desserts without Merci having to rat her out. Merci has been on the edge of the popular group, led by Edna, despite being poor and having a lazy eye, but over the course of the book she finds some unexpected new friends and comes out stronger than ever.
Merci has a Sunshine Buddy at school, a new kid she’s supposed to befriend and help out. Her Buddy is a boy, which is already awkward at 6th grade, and doesn’t really seem to need her help. But she finds a way and it’s rewarding. There are some scenes with the group that includes her Buddy, Michael, and mean girl Edna, that also show them all straddling that line into adulthood extremely well. The other very realistic thing I liked was that Merci was frequently chastised for being late to school when she is being driven by her mother or brother. I completely empathized with her level of frustration with being punished for something out of her control, and I think a lot of kids will, too.
My one complaint is that the secret way she comes up with to help Lolo remember might just realistically set her up for disappointment. When he forgets, nothing will help him remember. For now, he comes back to himself and remembers her, but eventually he won’t. So her project is really more for her, in the end, though it’s portrayed as some sort of gift or cure for him, and I hope other kids don’t take it that way.