In Meg Medina’s MERCI SUÁREZ CHANGES GEARS (Candlewick, 368 pp., $16.99; ages 9 to 12), Merci’s harbor is an extended family living in Las Casitas, which is what she calls their three pink, flattop houses that sit side by side. Medina quickly establishes their warm, congenial home life as the center of Merci’s universe.
But sixth grade throws the best of us off balance, and when Merci — who attends a private school on scholarship — is assigned to be the buddy of a cute new boy in town, jealousy swirls in her friend group. Meanwhile, there are troubles at home as the family’s adored grandfather, Lolo, starts to forget things and act erratically.
The 11-year-old’s worldview shifts uncomfortably — her friends have fancy bikes and swimming pools and can “do dumb stuff” at school, but she always has to prove herself. As her Papi tells her after she gets caught breaking a rule, “The value you add to the school has to come from you, because it’s not coming from our wallets.”
It’s clear that Merci loves her family. But she also chafes at family responsibilities, especially the expectation that she’ll watch her little cousins more now that Lolo is less reliable. “Find someone else … I’m not your servant!” she shouts at her aunt after a stressful day. Caught between the world of family and peers, the comfort of Las Casitas and the enticing new call of independence, Merci Suárez is a delightful heroine who, despite real challenges, never wavers in her strong sense of self or her fierce love for la familia. Readers will appreciate watching her navigate how to hold on to what matters when it feels like everything is changing.
There is no home, harbor or even a reliable adult in sight at the opening of Kate DiCamillo’s LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME (Candlewick, 227 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up). This companion novel to the award-winning “Raymie Nightingale” stands on its own, but follows the adventures of a character we met in the previous book, the unforgettable Louisiana Elefante, known to be the daughter of famous trapeze artists. In “Louisiana’s Way Home,” her cantankerous Granny ferrets Louisiana away from their Florida home in the middle of the night only to wind up on the side of the road with a major toothache. They detour to the dentist, and then end up in a Georgia motel, with now-toothless Granny alternately sleeping and groaning in pain.
Louisiana, with her quick, insightful takes on everyone she meets, grabbed readers’ hearts in “Raymie Nightingale,” and in this book she isn’t about to let go. Though her life has been filled with hardship and uncertainty — and there are more painful secrets to come — she continues to operate with a sense of wonder and practical optimism (the pages shine with it).
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