Tuesday, April 06, 2021

I Won't Dance! Can't Make Me! Merci Suarez Can't Dance by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez is starting seventh grade, and everything is different. Mami asks what's wrong with her, her grandfather Lolo seems more lost in Alzheimer's disease, her aunt, Tia Ines, has eyes for their friend Simon, and her friends from sixth-grade seemed obsessed by the upcoming Heart Ball--which means two things Merci dreads--romance and dancing.

And it doesn't begin well. Miss McDaniels summons her and leads Merci and a boy named Wilson Bellevue down a hall, her ring of keys rattling ominously.

We stood in front of the Ram Depot, formerly known as the the custodial closet. "I think you two would make a fine management team at the school store," she said as she opened the door. A metal cashbox and calculator sat on a cast-off desk with uneven legs. A box of pencils was against one wall, near the dust bunnies.

"Isn't there anything else?" Wilson asked. "The Earth Club? "Rinsing recyclables?" I secretly agreed with him.

Miss McDaniels bribes them with free desserts, key lime pie from the cafeteria.

"Every. Single. Day," she promises dramatically.

But Wilson Bellevue turns out to be kind and funny and easy to be with. Merci can't say the same for her so-called friends, Edna Santos, in her full glory as chairman of the Heart Ball Committee,and her once BFFs Hannah and Lena seem to have changed into boy watchers, too.

"I guess I didn't get the memo that people were changing things about themselves in seventh grade."

"I'm the same Merci as always except taller. Boring."

As the year goes on, Merci also is called on to wrangle her rowdy Kindergarten twin cousins, and Tia Ines and Simon become a dating (and kissing) couple. Her grandfather Lolo recedes into himself, becoming more lost in dementia, and Merci's mother seems to depend on her more and more. She feels like life is moving too fast, that things at home are changing and everything is swirling around her, and she can't seem to catch the rhythm of any of it. But when the  Heart Ball comes around, Merci's skills at photography and graphic editing are called upon, and even the new hairdo and the makeup and the dance dress are all right, and for once she feels like part of everything--until disaster strikes. As the dance ends, the expensive camera loaned by Edna's father is smashed in the flurry of movement from the crowd. 

 Wilson sees it fall, too. It's cracked and broken, and in a frenzy of despair, Merci frantically packs it up in its case, and seeing Miss McMillan making her way toward her, she runs out of the gym. In her anxiety, Merci can think of only one thing to do. She sells her beloved bicycle that Papi spent so much money on last year to pay for the loss. 

There are plenty of changes ahead for Merci Suarez as she comes to understand more about the many ways of love and finds her own rhythm, ironically on the dance floor of her aunt Ines' new Suarez Family Dance Studio opening, in Meg Medina's sequel to her 2020 Newbery Award winner, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, her just published Merci Suárez Can't Dance (Candlewick Press, 2021). In this funny and moving coming of age novel, Merci is a character that middle readers will love (if they don't already), and this new second novel, painful and heartwarming in the way of young people growing into a wider world, is a must purchase for school and public libraries. "Fans of Merci will root for her as they are immersed in her vibrant world full of unique characters and heartfelt surprises," says Booklist's starred review.

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