Every so often, I pick up two books in a row that parallel and complement one another so very well that it’s both delightful and startling. This past weekend, it was two books that, on the surface, don’t have a ton in common: one is a middle grade novel about a zine-writing twelve-year-old who’s struggling with being the New Kid in School; the other is a young adult verse novel about the seventeen-year-old son of a troubled rock star who is frustrated with how his father’s life and reputation is affecting his own life and reputation.
But! They’re both full of music and references to specific songs and artists—mostly punk in the former and rock in the latter—and they both feature young people using music to figure out who they are on the inside as well as who they are in relation to their families, friends, and the larger world around them. And—AND—they’re both an utter pleasure to read!
The First Rule of Punk, by Celia C. Pérez
Twelve-year-old María Luisa—she prefers Malú—thinks cilantro tastes like soap, she doesn’t do well with spicy food, and her fashion preferences run more to ratty band t-shirts and duct-taped Chuck Taylors than they do to her mom’s ideal vision of what a Mexican American señorita should look like. She feels that she’s got way more in common with her music-loving, record shop-owning—and white—father, so she’s not at all happy about moving to Chicago for the next two years with her mom.
Her fashion choices get her into trouble on her very first day at her new school—both with the administration and with Selena, the Queen Bee of her class—but she eventually finds a group of friends. They start a band and they’re SUPER excited about playing in the school’s talent show… until the school refuses to let them perform. So Malú and her friends do the punk rock thing, and work to find a way to express themselves nonetheless.
In addition to being an all-around smart, funny, Let’s Put On A Show friendship story, the parallels between Malú’s concerns about not being Mexican Enough and her mother’s own history and feelings on the subject AS WELL AS Queen Bee Selena’s struggles on a similar front are nuanced, empathetic, and honest. Seeing Malú discover that she’s not the only brown punk in the world, as she suddenly puts the pieces together and realizes that she doesn’t have to pick just ONE THING and her two worlds don’t have to clash, is a profoundly joyful moment.
Solo, by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess
Seventeen-year-old Blade—named after the comic book character—is tired of everything related to his father: the paparazzi, the endless addiction cycle of rehab-clean-backslide-rehab, but most especially with how that behavior has prejudiced his girlfriend’s father against him. A family fight occurs, and his sister drops the bomb: He was adopted.
Shortly thereafter, Blade is on his way to Ghana to find his biological mother.
Like the Pérez book, Solo is full of music. Not just Blade’s own songs, but references to other songs and musicians and music, and readers who’re familiar with some of the specific songs will notice how their rhythm informs the rhythm of the poetry—it’s lovely. The plotting and some of the characterization—especially in regards to the two main female characters in Ghana, both of whom read more as archetypes than individuals—aren’t entirely successful, but Blade’s voice is so strong and his journey towards understanding himself, his history, and his father is so compelling that it’s well worth a read anyway.
As I prefer to read in threes, do you have a recommendation for ANOTHER recent release that deals with figuring out one’s own self via music?
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.