Book Review: Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

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Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

BOOK DESCRIPTION: Seventh grade is going to be a real trial for Merci Suárez. For science she’s got no-nonsense Mr. Ellis, who expects her to be as smart as her brother, Roli. She’s been assigned to co-manage the tiny school store with Wilson Bellevue, a boy she barely knows, but whom she might actually like. And she’s tangling again with classmate Edna Santos, who is bossier and more obnoxious than ever now that she is in charge of the annual Heart Ball.

One thing is for sure, though: Merci Suárez can’t dance—not at the Heart Ball or anywhere else. Dancing makes her almost as queasy as love does, especially now that Tía Inés, her merengue-teaching aunt, has a new man in her life. Unfortunately, Merci can’t seem to avoid love or dance for very long. She used to talk about everything with her grandfather, Lolo, but with his Alzheimer’s getting worse each day, whom can she trust to help her make sense of all the new things happening in her life? The Suárez family is back in a touching, funny story about growing up and discovering love’s many forms, including how we learn to love and believe in ourselves.

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MY TWO CENTS: In this follow-up to her Newbery Award-winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears, Meg Medina once more dives back into Merci’s world, this time exploring her confusion and awkwardness of a first crush. Whereas the first book follows Merci as she learns that her beloved grandfather, Lolo, has Alzheimer’s, this book has a far lighter primary plot. Certainly Lolo’s diagnosis still impacts Merci, especially because Lolo’s capabilities have dwindled and Merci now must fulfill a caretaking role for him; yet, the book doesn’t dwell so much on Lolo as it does Merci herself. This shift is important. In the first book, Merci feels betrayal that the adults in her life withheld information from her. In Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, Merci is suddenly the one who must decide how much to tell others or what to protect them from. 

Now in the 7th grade, Merci is on the cusp of teenagerhood and all of the mixed-up feelings that go with it. While Merci’s group of friends are all seemingly growing up around her, Merci still enjoys the things of her childhood—riding her bike, playing soccer with her dad and his workmates, and visiting with her grandparents. Even when she is given the responsibility of running her school’s mini-store alongside her new friend Wilson, she clings to her stable childhood pleasures. Nevertheless, Merci has to grow up. Throughout the book, Merci is confronted with a number of events that require her to adopt a more mature mentality and leave her childhood thinking behind. While I won’t go into detail about these events, lest I give any spoilers, the new realities that Merci must navigate feel real and relatable, if maybe a little jumbled because of the amount of subplots. Having read the book over the course of several days, I did find myself losing track sometimes, but earlier subplots that seem unrelated at the time do factor into the ultimate climax of the book.

Fans of Merci Suárez Changes Gears will enjoy the continuation of her story in Merci Suárez Can’t Dance. Merci remains the compelling, loveable, and flawed character from the first book and the realism with which Medina brings Merci to life is astounding. Like all children, Merci makes mistakes and has to account for them. But she also triumphs, and we celebrate her victories.

Like Medina’s other books, Merci Suárez Can’t Dance is an engaging read. I will say, I did enjoy the first book better—possibly because Merci was still new to me and her struggle to accept her grandfather’s diagnosis was a more heart-tugging story. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy this book—I certainly did! —it just did not match the emotional appeal of the first in the series. However, I don’t necessarily think that’s something that should keep readers away from continuing on Merci’s journey. This book felt like a transition, a shift for Merci and for us as readers—especially so, given that this is the second book in a trilogy. Merci Suárez Plays It Cool, the final book in the series, is slated for release in September 2022. 

All in all, Merci’s growth, as explored in Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, is impactful and, for readers equally going through the transition from childhood to adolescence (or any change in life), will resonate. Meg Medina has a particular talent for rendering real life emotions and experiences in fiction and I will always pick up any new book of hers. Merci’s voice is one that is much needed for young readers, especially those experiencing tumultuous times.

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by Sonya Sones

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Meg Medina is a Newbery award-winning and New York Times best-selling author who writes picture books, as well as middle grade and young adult fiction. Her works have been called “heartbreaking,” “lyrical” and “must haves for every collection.” Her titles include:

  • She Persisted: Sonia Sotomayor, with Chelsea Clinton;
  • Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, one of the 50 most anticipated novels of 2021, according to Kirkus;
  • Evelyn del Rey is Moving Away / Evelyn del Rey se muda, 2020 Jumpstart’s Read for the Record Selection, winner of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature, and 2021 Crystal Kite Award;
  • Merci Suárez Changes Gears,  2019 John Newbery Medal winner, and 2019 Charlotte Huck Honor Book;
  • Burn Baby Burn, long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award,  short-listed for the Kirkus Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize;
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, winner of the 2014 Pura Belpré Author Award;
  • The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, a 2012 Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year;
  • Mango, Abuela, and Me, a 2016 Pura Belpré Author Honor Book; and
  • Tía Isa Wants a Car, winner of the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award.

When she’s not writing, Meg serves on the Advisory Committee for We Need Diverse Books, the grassroots organization working to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. She also works on community projects that support girls, Latinx youth, and/or literacy. She is a board member of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards, a faculty member of Hamline University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Children’s Literature. Meg lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

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