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Books in Brief: Mercy Suãrez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln

CHILDREN'S

Merci Suãrez Changes Gears by Meg Medina; Candlewick Press, 355 pages ($16.99)

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Big-hearted, thoughtful Merci Suãrez will steal your heart in this poignant, beautifully written, often humorous coming-of-age tale of friendship and family.

Unlike their classmates at Seward Pines Academy who take fancy vacations and live in big houses, sixth grader Merci and her genius older brother Roli are scholarship students. Their mom is a physical therapist, their dad is a painting contractor and they live with their grandparents and their aunt and her twins in three tiny adjoining houses. (Merci and Roli share a bedroom, divided by a curtain.)

Merci has always been close to her grandfather, Lolo, confiding in him about her troubles with a mean girl classmate, riding bicycles together to the pastry shop every Sunday. But Merci is starting to notice changes in Lolo: the police are called when there's a mixup over picking the twins up from kindergarten, he falls off his bicycle, she finds his eyeglasses in the refrigerator. And in a family that that prides itself on not having secrets from each other, no one will tell Merci what is going on until disaster strikes and the truth comes out.

Merci is also dealing with drama at school, fending off thinly veiled insults from queen bee Edna, who amps up the hostility when Merci is assigned a Sunshine Buddy, a new kid to welcome to the school, and the newcomer is a boy Edna has her eye on. A social studies class project on ancient Egypt involving building a mummy's tomb offers hilarious opportunities for extra drama with her nemesis.

Merci is keenly aware how different her life is from that of her Anglo classmates (while helping her father paint the bathrooms at a local park casino, she observes that "some customers watch us, as if we might take things when they're not looking"). She is a whiz at soccer, playing in pickup games with her dad and his friends, but family responsibilities take precedence over trying out for the school soccer team. Over the course of the novel, she comes to a new appreciation of her family and true friendship.

Medina, who won the Pura Belpre Author Award for young adult novel, "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass," offers a marvelous portrait of a loving, hard-working, Hispanic family and a vividly realistic picture of the confusion of the middle school years through the unforgettable voice of Merci Suãrez.

PICTURE BOOK

The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Mosss; illustrated by Jeremy Holmes; Abrams ($17.99).

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The true story of a secessionist plot to kill Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration in 1860 - and the role played by detective Allen Pinkerton in foiling the plot - is told in this  fascinating picture book with original, appropriately sinister cartoon-style illustrations.

While the Pinkerton agency under the leadership of Pinkerton's sons later became notorious for its work spying on unions and fighting with strikers, it's interesting to note that Allen Pinkerton was born in the slums of Scotland and his sympathy for workers' rights made him a wanted man before he fled to America. He became the first detective in the Chicago police department and founded what would become the nation's most successful detective agency. The details on how Pinkerton figured out a way to protect Lincoln during the train trip through dangerous Baltimore make for interesting reading and may particularly interest budding young detectives. Holmes' interesting art work includes a page of sleeping men with cartoon bubbles saying "I must be brave" (Lincoln), "Must not fail" (Pinkerton), and "We Will Secede" and "Down with the North" for the conspirators.

PICTURE BOOK

The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clark; illustrated by Van Thanh Rudd; Candlewick Press, $15.99.

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The vivid rhythms of Clark's buoyant prose ("This is the big Fiori tree where we go jumping and climbing out in the no-go desert, under the stretching-out sky.") are perfectly matched by the bold lines and vivid splashes of color of street artist Van Thanh Rudd's marvelous illustrations in this delightful, exuberant, entirely original picture book. A girl and her brothers live in a village at the edge of the "no-go desert" with their "fed-up mum," and the best thing about the village is the makeshift bicycle the three put together out of a mish-mosh of miscellany: a bent bucket seat, bashed tin can handles, wood-cut wheels, a flag made from a flour sack, a bell that "used to be Mum's milk pot." This utterly delightful tale offers a window into a far-off place while it speaks of the universal joy of childhood imagination and invention.

 

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