100 pages 3 hours read

Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Merci Suárez Changes Gears (2018), a contemporary middle-grade novel by Meg Medina, centers on a young girl facing major changes to her family dynamics. The book won numerous awards, including the 2019 Newbery Medal. Medina, a founding member of the “We Need Diverse Books” movement, has written many picture books, young adult books, and middle-grade novels about strong girls who overcome adversity and step up to challenges.

Plot Summary

Eleven-year-old Merci Suárez is the child of Cuban immigrants. She lives in Florida in a three-house row affectionately referred to as “Las Casitas,” or “little houses.” Merci lives with her mother Ana, her father Enrique, and her older brother Roli. Merci’s aunt, Tía Inés, occupies another house in Las Casitas with her twin sons, Tomas and Axel. Merci’s grandparents, Lolo and Abuela, live in the last house in Las Casitas. With grandfather Lolo around, Merci always feels loved, safe, and secure, though she notices that he is becoming forgetful. Though Lolo has always been someone whom Merci can count on, he has asked the family to keep the truth of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis from Merci.

Although Merci feels comfortable at home, she feels like an oddball at her school, Seaward Pines Academy. Everyone at school is rich and privileged; she is only there because she won a scholarship. Roli is there, too, but he is 17 and leaving for college soon. They must both maintain B+ averages to hold onto their scholarships, which is easy for Roli but difficult for Merci. Although she is smart, she knows she is nowhere near as smart as he is. Although Merci knows that her grades are important, she excels at sports. Unlike Roli, she is fast and strong; she wants to play soccer. She hopes one day to secure a sports scholarship for college, but she must first get on the school soccer team. Between try-outs and maintaining her grades, Merci has her hands full.

Merci can’t afford any distractions if she wants to get on the soccer team and maintain the grades she needs. However, her teachers don’t let her focus on her studies. Instead, Merci’s guidance teacher, Miss McDaniels, selects her for the up-and-coming student ambassador program. The student ambassadors help new students integrate, answering any questions they might have. Because she is one of the newest students, Merci is perfect for the job. Merci, however, doesn’t care about the program. She knows she will struggle to fit in the program between practicing soccer and homework assignments. Unlike some of the other students, Merci can’t mess up. Miss McDaniels, however, thinks Merci has it too easy. She quickly assigns Merci her first student, or “sunshine buddy,” Michael Clark. Originally from Minnesota, Michael has just moved into the neighborhood. He is a typical Seaward Pines student, and Merci doesn’t want to get to know him. She knows that Michael can’t possibly understand how hard school is for her, and she doesn’t see what she can teach him about Seaward Pines. Nevertheless, she is stuck with Michael for now.

Merci must also face down the school’s bully, Edna Santos, who brags about her family’s affluence and manipulates social situations to her advantage with her beauty and confidence. Edna’s cruelty comes to a head when Michael, whom Edna has a crush on, takes an interest in Merci. When Michael asks for Merci’s help with constructing his Halloween costume, Merci is forced to invite him to her house to prove to the school that she is undertaking her student ambassador duties. Abuela makes Michael’s mask and costume, and when Merci arrives at the school with it, Edna and her minion Jamie sneak into the classroom where the mask is being stored and destroy it. Merci knows that Edna was behind the mask’s destruction, but she has no way to prove it. Soon, Merci and Edna are called into the principal’s office for a meeting. During the meeting, the principal plays security camera footage that reveals Edna and Jamie as the ones who destroyed Michael’s mask. Armed with a greater confidence afforded to her by the adversity that she overcame during the year, Merci finds the strength to correct Edna’s capricious cruelty.

Meanwhile, Lolo’s condition deteriorates. He leaves the neighborhood, can’t find his way home, and wanders in front of traffic. When he drives to the school and picks up the wrong children because he is confused, the police intervene. Merci wishes her parents would be honest with her, but they insist on keeping secrets and acting as if everything is fine. To make matters worse, Merci’s mother doesn’t want her playing soccer. She never signs any of Merci’s permission slips, so Merci misses practice. Merci is forced to grow up faster than she wants to: When Lolo is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he can no longer babysit the younger family members. This job now falls to Merci, who briefly resents her family for placing these burdens on her until she realizes that blame won’t make anything better. Instead, she must make the best of a bad situation. Merci knows that there is nothing anyone can do to make Lolo better. Instead, the family must pull together to look after each other. Merci learns that what is most important in her life is looking after her family and working together during life’s trying moments. 

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