MERCI SUÁREZ PLAYS IT COOL
For Merci Suárez, eighth grade means a new haircut, nighttime football games, and an out-of-town overnight field trip. At home, it means more chores and keeping an eye on Lolo as his health worsens. It’s a year filled with more responsibility and independence, but also with opportunities to reinvent herself. Merci has always been fine with not being one of the popular kids like Avery Sanders, who will probably be the soccer captain and is always traveling to fun places and buying new clothes. But then Avery starts talking to Merci more, and not just as a teammate. Does this mean they’re friends?
For Merci Suárez, eighth grade means a new haircut, nighttime football games, and an out-of-town overnight field trip. At home, it means more chores and keeping an eye on Lolo as his health worsens. It’s a year filled with more responsibility and independence, but also with opportunities to reinvent herself. Merci has always been fine with not being one of the popular kids like Avery Sanders, who will probably be the soccer captain and is always traveling to fun places and buying new clothes. But then Avery starts talking to Merci more, and not just as a teammate. Does this mean they’re friends? Merci wants to play it cool, but with Edna always in her business, it’s only a matter of time before Merci has to decide where her loyalty stands. Whether Merci is facing school drama or changing family dynamics, readers will empathize as she discovers who she can count on—and what can change in an instant—in Meg Medina’s heartfelt conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Newbery Medal–winning novel.
In a satisfying finale to her trilogy, Newbery Medalist Meg Medina follows Merci Suárez into an eighth-grade year full of changes—evolving friendships, new responsibilities, and heartbreaking loss.
- Candlewick Press
- September 2022
- 352 Pages
“This final entry in the Merci Suárez trilogy once again shows readers the strength and beauty of family. Readers will love the inside look at clever Merci’s thoughts and feelings and may find similarities in their own experiences at school and home. Highly recommended for all middle-grade collections.”–Booklist (starred review)
“Although it’s accessible to new readers, the story’s conclusion will particularly resonate with existing fans of Merci and her Cuban American family. Medina finishes the heartwarming story arc of her plucky, curious, strong-willed young protagonist with the same well-crafted dialogue, humor, and cultural exploration readers expect. A fabulous finale to a memorable trilogy.”–-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The strength of this story lies in the authenticity of Merci’s character and her refreshingly sincere responses to the world around her, even and especially when self-conscious or misguided. Her home among her Cuban American family may not always be the refuge she wants, but it is full of love, support, Cuban traditions, and, occasionally, something delicious made by or with Abuela. . . the book closes on a note of promise as Merci leads her team out onto the field for their first game.”–The Horn Book (starred review)
1. Family is a huge part of Merci’s life. How does the change in family dynamics throughout the book affect her? Consider the growth that different family members make and the forgiveness needed between the different relations and generations.
2. Meg Medina is very specific in her word choice throughout the book. What is a sentence in the book that you felt was crafted especially well? What word or words in the sentence stood out to you? Why?
3. Merci is against summer reading. “…is summer reading even legal to assign during an official vacation period?” (page 4) However, summer reading is proven to have a positive effect on students when it comes to reading level. What are your thoughts on summer reading? How does it compare to Merci’s? Her family’s?
4. On page 54, Roli downloads the audiobooks of Merci’s summer reading texts, and Merci asks, “Is this allowed?” Audiobooks have been found to have the same benefits as reading when it comes to comprehension and analysis. Do you believe that audiobooks count as reading and should be allowed? Why or why not?
5. When Mrs. Ransome is told Roli is going to school to be a doctor (page 60-61), her reaction is one of surprise. Why is Merci so offended by her reaction? What does the reaction tell us about preconceived notions and societal racism?
6. When Lolo runs away from the house, Papi’s first reaction, after he is found, is to be angry (page 69). Why do you think Papi reacts this way? What is Roli’s reaction? Compare the two responses and discuss whether one is the better choice for the situation.
7. How does Merci compare boa constrictors shedding to 8th graders (page 92)? Do you agree with the comparison? What other animals could 8th graders be compared to?
8. Robin asks Coach, “What qualities are you looking for in recruits?” (page 193). What type of person do you think best makes a good team player? If you were a coach, what sort of players would you be looking for?
9. Playing football has begun to be debated because of research around the long-term effects of injuries that kids sustain (page 197-198). Do you think that only touch football should be allowed for kids? Why or why not?
10. Guidance and guidance groups play a large part in Merci’s story. How can a guidance counselor session or a group session help someone who is going through crisis?
11. Why do you think it is hard for Merci to open up to the guidance counselor? Do you think the connection she makes is ultimately helpful? Who are some of the trusted people you could go to if you felt overwhelmed and needed help?
12. Robin’s turn during soccer clinic was quite intense. What does her time on the field tell you about her as a player? What does Merci’s response to Robin tell you about Merci as a player and a person? Why do you think Avery is so threatened by Robin?
13. Although south Florida, where Merci is from, and north Florida, where St. Augustine is, are in the same state, the geography, ecosystems, and biomes are quite different. What differences do you notice between Merci’s home and St. Augustine based on what she shares on page 272? Think about your own home—how is where you live different than somewhere four hours away? Is it very different or very similar? How so?
14. Grief is an all-encompassing emotion. How does it affect Merci? Why is the idea of a way forward (page 307) so devastating for Merci?
15. “Time is very strange when someone dies. It drags its feet when you don’t want it to, but then you realize that weeks have gone by (page 338).” What are other examples of time being strange?
“Shut that screen door, Merci! You’re letting in mosquitoes!”
Mami’s sharp voice makes me jump as Tuerto dashes between my legs. He doesn’t even stop for a chin scratch in his race to escape the heat.
It’s early, but Mami’s already in her scrubs for work, though she’s still padding in bedroom slippers and a sloppy ponytail. Her eyebrows aren’t drawn in yet, either.
“Sorry. I was just letting him in before he got too loud,” I say, swatting at the half dozen bloodsuckers that are now darting around the kitchen.
The sun was barely up when I heard the meows. They echoed through our backyards, sounding like one of those spirits that Abuela warns about—a tátara-something-or- other buried back in Cuba who gets testy if they think they’ve been forgotten by their descendants.
Anyway, when I flipped on the light, I found Tuerto glaring at me from outside, his front claws clinging high and wide against the screen like he was the victim of a stickup.
“Did that cat shred the mesh again?” Mami asks, exasperated. “Your father just fixed it last week.”
“No.” I move my body to hide the new tear near the seam. She’s not above making me pay for the repair. But can I help it if our cat is a genius? He’s learned to yowl and shake the door to let us know he wants to come in. I’ve taken videos of him doing that trick because, one, my friend Wilson and I like trading funny cat videos when we’re bored, and two, while it may be lousy door manners, we’ve seen pets on Those Awesome Animals on TV win the $5,000 prize for less. Maybe we’ll get lucky.
“And anyway, you can’t blame Tuerto for wanting to come in from the heat, can you? He’s wearing a fur coat, you know, and it’s his nature to survive.” I motion at the thermometer we keep hanging on the patio. The needle is pointing at the red numbers. “It’s already ninety degrees!”
It’s the best defense I can think of, though I hope she doesn’t point out other less flattering parts of Tuerto’s nature, namely that he’s a heartless murderer. He kills everything: birds, mice, voles, lizards—even baby possums—and leaves them as grisly presents. I think back to the first time Tuerto left us a dead sparrow in Lolo’s gar- den. I was so angry at Tuerto for killing that pretty bird. “We feed Tuerto!” I cried. “He doesn’t need to kill things.” But Lolo just cradled the little body in his palm and helped me bury it so its spirit could live in the flowers. “There’s no stopping Mother Nature in the end, preciosa,” he told me, though we tied a silver warning bell to Tuerto’s collar after that.
Mami sighs and yanks the chain for the ceiling fan, trying to circulate the air-conditioning that never quite keeps up with Florida in July.
“I suppose you’re right about the heat,” she mutters. Then she reaches under the chipped saltshaker on the kitchen table and hands over today’s List of Doom.
I try not to look bitter as I review my list of chores. I should be with Papi and Simón this morning, way out past the cane fields in the Glades. If they finish that job early, they’re planning to fish on Lake Okeechobee for a little while.
Mami, however, had other ideas for my time and ruined the fun. She says chores build character.
Which is porquería.
“You have to clean your room today,” she tells me, as if I can’t read her list myself. “It’s a mess. Tuerto is nesting in sweaty underwear.”
“It’s mostly Roli’s,” I say. “Go see for yourself—if you dare.” It requires the moves of a ninja just to get past our door with Roli’s boxes from college all over the room. He hasn’t unpacked from when he came home in May.
Naturally, she ignores this. “Let him sleep,” she says.
Roli worked the graveyard shift at Walgreens again last night, so he’s out cold, snoring como si nada on the other side of the curtain that divides our room.
Mami loads the percolator with El Pico and lights the flame. “You have your summer reading, too. Don’t forget. There’s only a couple of weeks left before school starts.”
From the corner of my eye, I see the incriminating stack of library books sitting on the shelf near the back door exactly where I left them three weeks ago. I read the business book (my free choice) in two days, but I haven’t even started the other two, mostly on principle. Why should I do homework for a teacher I haven’t even met? But the not-so-secret faculty motto at Seaward Pines Academy is apparently Work ’em till their eyes bleed.
“It’s kind of hard to read if I have all these other chores, too,” I say. “Besides, is summer reading even legal to assign during an official vacation period?”
I grab my phone from the charging station and type the word vacation into the dictionary. “It says right here: ‘Vacation: An extended period of leisure and recreation.’” I give her a knowing look. “We’d never get away with this kind of infringement on an employee’s personal time in the business world.” I should know since I am currently writing the Sol Painting, Inc., employee handbook for Papi. “In fact, I’m pretty sure my rights are being violated. I may have a case here.”
“Only if you mean a case of poor planning,” Mami says. “We’ve been over this, Merci. Reading is recreational.”
I give her a look. “Not with those books.”
“How would you know if you haven’t started them?” She peers out the kitchen window toward Abuela’s house, where the lights are on. There’s a small flash of worry in her face.
“What?” I say, walking over. The summer has been tough on my grandparents, especially Lolo. The heat seems to have melted his mind like butter in a pan—and that has everyone around here on edge. His new medicines were supposed to help with that, but if anything, he seems worse.
“Nada,” she tells me, although I’m not sure whether to believe her. “It just looks like they’re up already. Check in with Abuela before you get started. She might need you to watch Lolo while she showers this morning.”
I try not to make a face at her. I hate when she calls it “watching Lolo.” It’s not like he’s a baby, or worse, like the twins, who are every babysitter’s nightmare. Lolo has always liked to walk the neighborhood, though every once in a while now, he forgets where he is, which makes Abuela jumpy. What is that like? I wonder. To suddenly not know your own block or recognize our houses or, on some days, even know your own name?
Anyway, I try not to think about that too much. And I don’t mind taking walks with Lolo, either, even if we’re moving slower these days. He’s quiet, but I can still tell Lolo anything I want and be 100 percent sure that he won’t tell anybody else.
Mami shakes a box of bran flakes into a chipped bowl. “You want some of this?”
It looks like a stack of bark shavings. “No, thank you,” I say, holding up my hand. “That stuff tastes like Styrofoam.”
She shrugs and pours milk over her cereal. “It also keeps the digestive tract moving,” she says. “I noticed you took a long time in the bathroom yesterday.”
I give her an icy stare and head to the refrigerator. It’s bad enough that my screen time is closely monitored, that I’m required to store my phone in the kitchen over- night, that I have to do chores during my vacation. Now my bowel habits are being surveilled, too? Prison inmates probably have more privacy.
The cool blast from the freezer soothes me when I yank it open. I pull out the last two packets of blueberry toaster waffles I hid at the very back. At least Roli hasn’t devoured these yet. Maybe he read the sticky note that I taped on the box, the one with the skull and crossbones I drew: Hands off the stash, Bro. These waffles are Lolo’s favorite, and mine, too, even though Mami and Abuela claim they’re not “real food.”
“Where are you going?” Mami says as I head past her and down the hall with my breakfast.
“To attend to my digestive tract,” I say, trying not to sound too snarky. “And then to check on Abuela.”