Here are reviews of this year’s Newbery and Newbery honor books. I had read just one of these when it first came out, The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. And shout-out to my blogging friend Sondy at Sonderbooks, whose Newbery committee journey I’ve been following the past couple of years.
Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. Candlewick, 2018.
I really enjoyed Meg Medina’s picture book Mango, Abuela and Me, and had heard great things about her teen books as well, so this book had been on my radar even before it won the Newbury Medal. I had to double-check, too, when I first read it – sure enough, I had already met Merci back in 2017, when she appeared in a short story in the Flying Lessons anthology.
Merci is just starting sixth grade at a private school, where she’s on scholarship. Things get off to a bad start when she’s forced to “volunteer” as a Sunshine Buddy to a boy, Michael, from Minnesota. She’d rather not be stuck with a boy, while her rival Edna Santos immediately develops a crush on him. Her parents, grandparents, and aunt own a trio of pink houses, which makes it easy for Merci to get stuck with child care for her younger twin cousins, though she also has a close relationship with her grandfather, Lolo. He’s having new difficulties with routine things – falling off his bike, or accidentally picking the wrong twins up from school. But if Merci notices his accidents, should she speak up or do as he asks and keep it a secret?
I really enjoyed spending time with Merci and her family. Medina does a great job creating well-rounded characters – Merci does some absolutely cringe-worthy things, but with a lot of effort and some humiliation, finds a balance between standing up for herself and learning how to be friends at school, at the same time as she’s dealing with a family that’s simultaneously supportive and smothering, and her grandfather’s worsening mental state. And even though these are heavy issues, there’s enough humor and spirit to keep this overall a happy book.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani. Narrated by Priya Ayyar. Listening Library, 2018. B079RN5YLT. Print edition by Kokila, 2018, 978-0735228511.
Twelve-year-old Nisha’s mother may have died giving birth to her and her twin brother Amil, but other than that, her life has been relatively calm. She’s able to go to school, sneaking to the kitchen for cooking lessons after school. Her father and grandmother may not be very affectionate, but life is relatively peaceful.
But it’s India in 1947. Nisha learns that her part of India is about to become Pakistan, and only Muslims are allowed to stay. Though her mother was Muslim, her father is Hindu, and the mixed marriage a secret from the village. They must leave their house, and Nisha’s beloved cook, who is Muslim. Nisha writes secret letters to her mother in her diary at night to keep her company as they make the grueling journey to safety and a new start. Priya Ayyar reads in slightly accented English – enough to know that Nisha is Indian, but not so much as to make it hard to understand. Her generally whispery tones suit the secret diary theme.
There are many things to like about this book. Nisha is a sweet girl, who understands implicitly that religion shouldn’t be used to divide people. The journey also helps their emotionally distant father come to value both Nisha and Amil, who has difficulty with reading and schoolwork but excels at drawing. It was fascinating to learn more about the partition of India, something I knew next to nothing about. At the same time, the central story-telling device of having Nisha write sorrowful letters to her dead mother felt emotionally manipulative to me, especially in a story where just having to leave her home was emotional upheaval enough for poor Nisha, and that makes me more angry than sympathetic. I’m in the minority on this, though – everyone else seems to love this book. It has won many accolades in addition to the Newbery honor. But both child and adult readers generally know if this kind of device works for them, so readers for whom the description sounds appealing will probably enjoy the book.