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Inside Heavy Medal

Merci and Her Changes – A Practice Discussion

merciIn Monday’s post, Roxanne outlined the Discussion Procedures that will be followed when we discuss the 18 titles on the Heavy Medal Mock List, starting in January.  Today, we’ll do another practice discussion following those same procedures, using a book that received six nominations from Heavy Medal readers, but did not make our final list of 18.  I will introduce this one; once our actual discussion starts in January, we will assign members of the Heavy Medal Award Committee (HMAC) to introduce specific titles:

Merci Suárez Changes Gears  by Meg Medina

This is kind of a sprawling novel, with a large cast of characters and several related plot threads…but in the best ways. It all comes together because Merci is such an engaging and interesting character. Her seventh grade problems are fairly typical: a mean girl, a cute new boy, missing soccer tryouts, etc. But as told through her honest, energetic, and heartfelt (but never preachy) narration, they matter a lot.

Medina captures Merci’s family life with insight and subtlety. Language and cultural elements are evident, but don’t overwhelm the story. It’s the distinct personalities of her relatives and the ways they interact that really shine. Her family is strong and supportive, but they also fight and bicker and irritate each other, like so many close-knit families really do. The family dynamics impact her challenges at school too. As Papi says: “You have to show everyone here every day that they did the right thing accepting you. You have to act like a serious girl.” (p 174).

The ways Merci “changes gears” over the few months of the novel are meaningful and convincing. She’s probably still going to bend the rules, and she likely won’t be friends with Edna, but she has a stronger sense of herself and some fuller understanding of others.  The most serious plot element, Lolo’s struggles with Alzheimer’s, steadily develops alongside the other events. His condition isn’t going away, but Merci’s gift to Lolo at the end shows that she’s coming to terms with it, and, typically, will still be creative and insist on trying to make things better. This is a rich and engaging story, artfully constructed around a memorable and highly appealing character.

As outlined in the Discussion Procedures, let’s start with some positive feedback about MERCI from HMAC and from any other Heavy Medal readers who want to chime in.









Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Deborah Ford says:

    It’s hard not to love Merci and her wonderfully chaotic family. Medina’s debut middle grade novel approaches tough issues like Alzheimer’s and traditional middle-grade problems like boys, popularity, and family pressure with humor and believability. Merci struggles with what she wants, knowing that the right thing to do is to watch her cousins and not complain about missing soccer. Her sense of family pride causes her to work far harder at school so that she won’t be an embarrassment to her father.

    Kids will identify with collaborative projects and the awkwardness they often deliver. Of course, she has to work with her arch enemy, which leads to story tension, anguish and laughter. Medina also breaks the traditional template for this age group allowing Merci to have parents that she might actually talk to. When she finally confronts Lolo, he realizes she is frightened, but tells her “we are strong enough to face this together.” pg 275

  2. The steamy Florida setting was palpable and I could picture the three pink houses and all the activity around them very clearly. The ways all the family members pitched in with childcare, rides and cooking felt true-to-life. The characters were fully fleshed-out and likeable. Her brother, Roli, with his beginner driving skills and his science-nerd comments and activities were entertaining and her experience of trying to succeed in his shadow as a scholarship student at her private school created realistic tension. Her relationship with her grandfather with their bike riding together, and his superior listening skills and support of her troubles at school pulled all the right heart-strings for me and created something real to mourn when we see (before Merci) his worsening condition.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      Good point about the Florida setting. That really came through, but in a fluid, natural way as part Merci’s narrative. I agree with the strengths that Deborah and Susan note: true-to-life, likable, real, humor, believable, kids will identify… These aren’t necessarily words that scream “Newbery” on their own, but it’s the way they work together in a story that’s fully engaging that could be considered “distinguished.”

  3. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Looking at MERCI in comparison to FRONT DESK, SNOW LANE, JUST LIKE JACKIE, STYX MALONE, IVY, etc., I think those books may have had more powerful moments, but I’m not sure any of those is as seamless as MERCI in presenting plot, character, setting, and themes through the thoughts and experiences of its protagonist, and with a minimal (or absent) sense of an author’s deliberate hand.

    • yes, seamless and realistic. Merci felt like a real kid. Much more so for me than Jackie (from JLJ) and Mia (from Front Desk).

  4. I’m only partially through this book. i find the connections between Merci and the members of her family the strongest element, particularly Lolo. I loved the soccer game. No one does girl drama like Medina, “No offense.” It all feels authentic. What I’m missing is driving tension.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    DaNae’s comment about the missing “driving tension” is a good lead in to open up the discussion to more varied responses to MERCI. Feel free now to discuss areas in which this book may fall short in terms of literary excellence. And also continue to highlight the book’s strengths, as well.

  6. I didn’t feel any lack of driving tension or rather I didn’t feel like the book needed more tension. The heartbreak of Lolo’s impending descent into dementia engaged my emotions– enough so that I can still look back and feel the impact.

    • Armin Arethna says:

      I agree with Susan N. about the heartbreak of Lolo’s impending descent into dementia, and wonder if kids will feel the impact of this in the same way.

  7. I wanted to stop back by, now that I’ve finished this book. I fully agree that Merci is an excellently drawn eleven-year-old. Utterly genuine in her self-absorption and generous heart. And while I agree there is plenty of tension, and Merci found much to be frustrated with, it never felt focused on the one thing Merci wanted. Which is what my statement about driving tension alluded to. I was perfectly content with this book, this girl, and this family. I would love to live inside this family. It may be my critique groups voice in my ear asking, “Yes, but what is the story goal?”

    I find it stronger in character delineation than many of the books we will talk about for real.

  8. This never made it to our finalists slate — Congrats to Meg Medina!!! Would it have won the Heavy Medal award if it had been part of the final discussion?

    • I could have gotten behind it more than some of our titles. It may have been lost among the abundance of other realistic fiction on the list. Merci lingers for me as one of the strongest characterizations of the year. And for sure, my favorite family of the year.

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