We're only halfway through Health and PE when he adjusts his tight collar and says, "Time to go."
I stand up and push in my chair, like we're always supposed to, grateful that picture day means that class ends early. At least we won't have to start reading the first chapter in the textbook: "I'm OK, You're OK: On Differences as We Develop."
"Coming, Miss Suárez?" he asks me as he flips off the lights. That's when I realize I'm the only one still waiting for him to tell us to line up. Everyone else has already headed out the door.
This is sixth grade, so there won't be one of the PTA moms walking us down to the photographer. Last year, our escort pumped us up by gushing the whole way about how handsome and beautiful we all looked on the first day of school, which was a stretch since a few of us had mouthfuls of braces or big gaps between our front teeth. But that's over now. Here at Seaward Pines Academy, sixth-graders don't have the same teacher all day, like Miss Miller in the fifth grade. Now we have homerooms and lockers. We switch classes. We can finally try out for sports teams.
Do you love a great coming-of-age tale featuring a memorable character who's all too easy to relate to, Esteemed Reader? If so, Merci Suárez Changes Gears will truly change the gears of your heart. Did that metaphor work? No? Forget it, let's keep going.
Make sure you find your way back here on Wednesday as we'll have the great fortune to be joined by author Meg Medina who will be the next distinguished author to face the 7 Questions, and she will change the gears of your writer's mind. So don't miss it:)
Merci Suárez Changes Gears will make you laugh and cry in nearly equal amounts. It's a charming story that's about a lot of things, as is life, but mostly it's about an adolescent girl going through the agony of puberty in a way that made me cringe recalling my own experiences as well as watching my siblings go through that terrible trial of life.
Recently, Little Ninja and I kept a caterpillar in a jelly jar long enough to watch it cocoon for a few days before we released a beautiful butterfly. It was majestic. The transition of a human from a child to a teenager is considerably less so:
"You're not supposed to smell good when you're playing outside," I grumbled, but Tia Inez wouldn't listen. She dumped the whole basket of powders, razors, and deodorants at the cashier's counter just the same.
"Merci, a young lady takes care of herself," she said, hand over her two-for-one coupons. "Like it or not, it's time."
Time for what, exactly? I wanted to know, but I didn't dare ask.
Esteemed Reader, my sixth and seventh grade years were the worst years of my life (and hopefully will always remain so, their ranking unchallenged). A big part of what made them so miserable is that my grandmother's health declined severely and then she died. Typing that sentence just now tore a leak in a carefully preserved packet of sorrow I usually avoid opening and am now quickly resealing because I have things to get done today.
One reason we read stories is to drain the build-up of emotion that accumulates over the average human life. Having a cry at a book or a movie or the new Spider-man video game (so awesome, and so sad) keeps those emotional packets drained to a maintainable level so we're not overwhelmed and can go about living our life without openly weeping at the tragedy of humanity's mortality.
Here's my point made better in the text:
Children don't need to hear life's ugliness. There's plenty of time for that. I've heard Abuela say that before. She hates when books and movies that Roli and I watch are sad or bloody. But that's so dumb. Plenty of sad things happen to kids all the time. Your dog dies. Your parents split up. Your best friend dumps you for someone better. Someone sends you a mean snap message.
Let us ***giggles obnoxiously*** change gears, and get back to the book. Without spoiling, Merci Suárez Changes Gears will provide the reader a few opportunities to drain the build up in their emotional packets (starting to sound like I should see a doctor). Merci's grandfather, Lolo, is in declining health, and that's putting new pressures on Merci's entire family. Chiefly, it's forcing Merci to grow up faster than she'd like and to think of the world in a new way that's significantly less fun, but more nuanced than a child's perspective.
Also, we're going to talk a little about money and social class in a moment, because 1. I love talking about those things, and 2. It's a huge part of this story. But first, let us appreciate Merci's unique family situation. I'd argue that what Merci lacks in material wealth, she makes up for some with the wealth of family (not that you can buy a new bike with that):
Mami only marked the cheapo basic package, and I happen to know (because it said so in gigantic font on the letter we got at home this summer) that picture day at Seaward is one of our biggest school fundraisers. You're supposed to buy a lot, like for your family in Ohio that barely knows you and whatnot. But my family mostly lives on the same block, one house next to the other. We see one another every single day.
How we live confuses some people, so Mami starts her usual explanation. Our three flat-top houses are exact pink triplets, and they sit side by side here on Sixth Street. The one on the left, with the Sol Painting van parked out front, is ours. The one in the middle, with the flower beds, is where Abuela and Lolo live. The one on the right with the explosion of toys in the dirt, belongs to Tia Inez and the twins. Roli calls it the Suárez Compound, but Mami hates that name. She says it sounds like we're the kind of people who collect canned food and wait for the end of the world any minute. She's named it Las Casitas instead. The little houses. I just call it home.
Merci is going through lots of changes and she attends a schmancy private school full of kids with money who are also going through changes, because adolescents in puberty are so terrible, no one wants to be around them but other adolescents (and frequently not even them), so we as a society have determined to keep them centrally located where they can just go be miserable together and leave the rest of us alone:)
Merci and her brother attend Seaward on a scholarship, so that in addition to the usual feeling of no one understanding that accompanies puberty, she's stuck in a place where most of her richer classmates really don't understand. They can try out for the soccer team because their parents can afford the cost of playing accompanied with the loss of a built in babysitter. But Merci has to watch her younger cousins and help out with her father's painting business, which totally sucks and isn't fair at all.
A lesser author might invent a way for Merci to suddenly become rich (like, say, meeting their really rich cousin, Banneker Bones for the first time). Meg Medina is more responsible than that. Without giving the whole thing away, Merci's journey is to grow up and appreciate the good things she has without focusing on what she lacks. She also learns the importance of putting the needs of her family above her own needs, which is a lesson too many adults still haven't learned.
There's a literal plot element of Merci saving to buy a new bike, but the gears she's changing are the metaphorical ones in her mind. What Meg Medina does most successfully in this novel, aside from ripping out her reader's heart, is to put us in the mindset of Merci, who's beginning to notice darker things about the world around her for this first time:
I creep closer to the cruiser as Mami talks, being careful not to make any sudden moves the whole way. Cops are community helpers and all that, but a billy club and gun don't ever look very friendly.
Although it's not the main thrust of the novel, a lot of what Merci is noticing as she mentally changes gears is how fundamentally unfair life in America is. For example, she's invited to a party and told it's a big deal because the host's dad owns a yacht dealership, so she should be thrilled. And there are plenty of other harsh realities for Merci to notice along the way:
Seaward's gym is ginormous, so it took us three whole days to paint it. Plus, our school colors are fire-engine red and gray. You know what happens when you stare at bright red too long? You start to see green balls in front of our eyes every time you look away. Hmpf. Try doing detail work in that blinded condition. For all that, the school should give me and my brother, Roli, a whole library, not just a few measly textbooks. Papi had other ideas, of course. "Do a good job in here," he insisted, "so they know we're serious people." I hate when he says that. Do people think we're clowns? It's like we've always got to prove something.
"Canned? Is this all you have?" Tia asks.
Abuela gives her a withering look. "¡Por Dios! Yes, it's all I have, and there's nothing wrong with it. You were raised on leche evaporada!"
"But the twins only drink fresh milk. You know they're picky about food."
"The twins aren't on social security, Inez."
(in regard to a hospital - MGN) But Abuela's on a roll, and her voice is getting louder. "And why doesn't anybody make house calls anymore? How are two ancianos supposed to get all these appointments? Those silly shuttles that never come on time? And I don't even want to start to tell you about the cost. They charge you the eye on your face, and then they use it to pay for their fancy lobbies with the waterfalls and fish tanks."
And that's where we'll leave it, Esteemed Reader. Merci Suárez Changes Gears is an entertaining and moving novel that's perfect for kids in adolescence and anyone who remembers having gone through the same thing.
Don't miss Meg Medina's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Merci Suárez Changes Gears:
I ignore them as best I can and take my turn.
I sit on the stool exactly the way the photographer says: Ankles crossed. Torso swiveled to the left and leaning forward. Hands in lap. Head tilted like a confused puppy. Who sits like this, ever? I look like a victim of taxidermy.
If you want to know all the ways you can be tragically hurt in everyday life, just talk to Abuela. She keeps a long list—and she doesn't mind sharing details.
"Get back from the canal," she yells whenever one of us kids wanders too close to the fence behind our house. "An alligator will close its jaws on you and drag you to the bottom!"
"Put shoes on!" she'll say whenever I'm barefoot. "You'll get worms in your belly the size of spaghetti."
"No offense, Merci, but you're a wreck."
I squeeze my eyes shut, trying not to let my eye stray. It's only Edna being Edna. I should be used to it by now. No offense, Merci, but you're singing off-key. No offense, Merci, but I want to study my spelling words with somebody else. It took me a while to figure Edna out last year, but I finally got wise. No offense is what Edna says right before she takes a hatchet to your feelings.
The patio already looks like a toy chest detonated.
I look at my pen pal assignment: Lena, who sits in the front row and cracks her knuckles. I don't really know her because this is our only class together. Plus, at lunch, she usually reads by herself outside. She got a spiky haircut over the weekend, though, with the ends dyed blue. She looks a little like a hedgehog.
"Things happen over time, Merci," Mami finally says. "We grow up and older. We need to respect how things change and adjust."
Her words jumble out of her mouth and make me angry. "What are you talking about?" I say, cutting her off. "It's all blah, blah, blah. Nobody will tell me what's really wrong!"
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.