by Aileen Hower
Vice President for Elementary Schools
I probably don't need to convince anyone to pick up a Newbery as a good book to read. But Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina deserves to be shared and written about as much as possible, especially after the fanfare of winning has ebbed a bit.
My first glimpse into Merci's life came when I read the short story anthology Flying Lessons and Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh. Each story was completely different. I loved most of them for completely unique reasons. Meg Medina's story was about a brother and sister who attend private school on scholarship. Their dad owns his own painting business and has to paint the school gym over the summer. He gets the kids to help get the job done.
For Merci though, this painting job was... humiliating, as this gym was her school gym, and she didn't want her classmates to find out that she didn't live in a big home or own a boat like everyone else who attends the school or lived in that part of Florida seemed to.
Because it was a short story, Merci's tale was over before I wanted it to be. I was left loving her Abuela and Abuelo, but thinking her story was over before it ever got started.
Then the book was published. It was the perfect mix of sixth-grade angst, health, and school stresses, and wonderful interactions between family members, making new friends, and finding oneself. It more completely told Merci's story in a way that felt more personal, although I would love to follow Merci and her family into seventh-grade.
Get the short story to share with your class to entice them to read the full story of the Suarez family. Or read the short story to fill in a bit of background of the powerful middle-grade novel that comes next.
While Merci's story is fresh and provides an authentic window into her family's life in Florida, it is also an example of a strong, young, female narrative voice that is missing from many of our classroom libraries.
by Aileen Hower
Vice President for Elementary Schools
I just had a new book break into my top ten favorite books of all time.
I had been hearing great things about the young adult novel, A Short History of the Girl Next Door. Because Mr. Reck teaches in a neighboring school district, I eagerly noticed the attention his debut book was receiving. Mr. Reck is an advocate for choice, and wide and deep reading among his 8th grade Language Arts students. He has previously spoken to our local reading council about current books to share with teenagers.
I was hopeful that his book would find success. I had no idea how impressive it would be.
A Short History starts out as a typical novel for teens: boy and girl are best friends until one day, boy realizes he feels differently about girl. The story is told through the point of view of Matt, aka boy, the narrator. And, while most of the content deals with his interactions and follow-up inner dialogue about his neighbor and best friend turned love interest, Tabby, there is a great deal more going on with the plot.
Chapter One starts with: “The Moment I Know It’s Over” – when Liam Branson, a senior, gives Tabby a ride to school. As Tabby’s social trajectory in high school increases with new friends and a boyfriend, Matt struggles with being left behind. He has worked tirelessly on his basketball game only to be placed on JV, a team that seems to exist just to help the Varsity team practice. Of course, Liam is one of the star players on the varsity team. In sharing how alone Matt feels without Tabby, Reck flashes back to provide a rich context to Matt and Tabby’s friendship, as well as their families’ history together. Tabby has been a part of Matt’s “family” for a long time. She plays the role of big sister to Matt’s young brother, Murray. The interactions between Murray and Matt show just how complex a character Matt is, and how cherished a friend Tabby has become to all of them. Matt feels betrayed, abandoned, guilty, comfortable, and light-headed when he now spends time with Tabby. The reader feels all of Matt’s emotions through Reck’s skillful writing.
Then Reck twists the plot in an unexpected way that literally haunted me for days. I found myself reading the novel voraciously so that I could find meaning and healing along with the characters. In the middle of the night, my husband asked if I was okay, because the book had affected me so strongly.
This novel’s characters are heart-felt and carefully crafted. The story is not overwrought with emotion, despite the tragic events. In fact, the tone is enjoyably sarcastic. Matt’s internal dialogue is captivating. There are great scenes with Matt’s English teacher, Mr. Ellis, that put a positive spotlight on how many teachers engage students in their classrooms. Most importantly, Jared Reck’s writing is superb. Amongst all of the characters and plot twists, I mentioned to quite a few people how I could tell that craft was a paramount hallmark of this piece. I do not often stop to appreciate writing as I did in this text.
I can imagine that every teenager will find something powerfully compelling in Reck’s book. From the realistic male narrator who loves basketball, to his expression of a more sensitive side, to the powerful plot with a compelling reason to see the book through to the end, this book will appeal to all readers (adult and teen), and can be recommended with confidence, and even used in class for its mentor sentences, to bring a contemporary text into the classroom.