I’d tell you the first rule of punk, as laid out in Celia C. Pérez’s novel of the same name, but then I’d want you to read this entertaining book for yourself to find out. A novel that has landed on many year-end best-of lists, it’s the story of twelve-year-old Malú, who moves with her mother from Florida to Chicago. Malú misses her father; she’s struggling to be her authentic punk self when her Mexican American mother would much rather she embrace more of her traditional Mexican heritage; and she’s doing her best to fit in at a new school. It’s what the starred Kirkus review calls a “charming debut about a thoughtful, creative preteen connecting to both halves of her identity.”
Celia and I chatted via email about this, her first novel.
Jules: Hi, Celia! First of all, congrats on the 2017 Horn Book Fanfare nod for your novel. It has been so well-received this year. This must be gratifying for your debut.
Celia: Thank you! I honestly didn't know what to expect. I certainly never imagined the kind of reception it has received! I don't know if I have the words to properly capture how fortunate and honored I feel that it's gotten so much love.
Jules: When I finished it, just this week, I intentionally did not read any interviews you’ve done about the novel this year. I wanted to avoid copying someone else’s questions, but I certainly hope I don’t ask you questions you’ve answered multiple times already in 2017.
Celia: Oh, that's a great idea!
Jules: One thing I wondered, especially when I read your bio where you mention hating cilantro (like the protagonist): Did you mine any of your own childhood memories for this story? For one, you’re an avid zine-maker, yes?
Celia: My childhood was very different from my protagonist's. I wasn't at all like her as a twelve-year-old. If I mined anything, it was the feeling of being an outsider, of always teetering between worlds, never fully in any one of them. I think for me it wasn't so much that people made me feel like I didn't belong, but rather my own sense that there was something missing. There wasn't anyone, whether in real life or in a book, with whom I truly identified.
I've mentioned in a few interviews my desire to see more stories about brown weirdos, because that's something I never saw as a kid—brown people who were outside the "mainstream." Growing up in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood and attending schools with a similar demographic, there weren't many kids who were into books or writing or art or music. And that's not to say that those two things don't go together; I just never saw it in my sort of insulated world. I didn't start making zines or really get into punk until I was in college, but these are both things that if I'd had any exposure to as a twelve-year-old, I would have eaten up.
I think the fact that my parents were immigrants made it difficult for me to feel like I could be outwardly, openly expressive. When I discovered zines and punk, they opened up this new world for me. I felt, on one level, outside of those scenes as a person of color, but on another level, very connected to them, because they were so liberating. They gave me permission to express myself in a way that wasn't controlled or managed by anyone else, that could be whatever and however I wanted it to be.
But there were certainly things that I pulled from childhood memories, little details like listening to Lola Beltrán and the toilet paper doll! Oh man, I totally want one of those now. Anyone have an abuelita who can crotchet one up for me?
Jules: I love the zines in the book. The only thing I’d want to change about this wonderful book is seeing those in color. Was there ever a discussion of that with the publisher? (I can only assume publishing the zines in full-color would have made it very expensive to publish.)
Celia: There was never discussion of printing them in color. There are ten eight-page zines, plus two single-page illustrations, so I don’t think that was ever a consideration on Viking’s part. And that’s totally fine, because they have that black-and-white, photocopied old-school zine look to them. I like to bring the original zines and the original end papers, which I also created, to share with smaller groups so that they can see what everything looks like in color. Because the zines were going through their own editing and revision process, the originals look a little different than what my own personal zine originals look like. Some of them required a little more work and piecing together.
Jules: Back to what you were saying earlier about “brown weirdos.” I love that, and I also love that not only is that what this story offers, but at the same time it’s a universal story. At its very essence, it’s about this adolescent trying to find her way, something to which I think everyone can relate (except the perfect people of the world, and who wants to be perfect?).
Celia: Let me know if you find any of these perfect people who never have trouble finding their way!
Jules: Were you conscious of all of this while you were writing?
Celia: When I was twelve, I definitely did not have an awareness that other people were going through the same thing I was. When you're in the thick of your own growing-up woes, it's hard to see the world through a lens that allows you to put things in perspective, right? Everyone has it good except for you. I don't think I was writing with the universality of the story at the top of my thoughts, but it was certainly floating around in there. How great is it to find out that, as alone as you may feel, you're never alone? I think books do this for readers. I know they did for me. When I was a kid, there weren't books about Latinos, much less about Latinos who didn't fit into certain molds, but as a reader I connected to the universality of stories about non-brown kids. Did I answer your question?!
Jules: Absolutely. That makes me wonder, too, have you done school visits or things like book festivals, where you’ve been able to see students’ reactions to your book, particularly Latino students?
Celia: Yeah! For my school visit presentations, I talk about where inspiration for the book came from, and I show the audience my inspiration board, which is a collection of images on my website (the images were originally a Pinterest board). It's this hodgepodge of punk and Mexican culture, everything from Riot Grrrl to soldaderas during the Mexican Revolution. It's always really cool when Latino kids see the conchas or the more obscure stuff—and by “obscure” I mean that they're not as recognizable, unless you grew up around Latinos, like el Chavo and la Chilindrina, characters from a Mexican comedy show—and get excited, because they're familiar with them.
I can tell you that stuff like that may seem small, but those little details matter. To see this part of your world that isn't necessarily known or seen outside of your own community or family—it's hard to explain, but it's like you feel acknowledged. I remember reading Daniel José Older's Shadowshaper last year and coming across a mention of malta, which is a malt soda that's popular in Caribbean countries and was something I grew up drinking, and thinking how that one little detail made me feel so connected to the book—like this was written with someone like me in mind. I wanted to pull in these pieces of Mexican and Mexican American culture that Latino kids would recognize and that would help them feel a sense of ownership over the story. There's the universal story of finding your place that everyone can connect with, but I also love that people gravitate to and connect with different little details about the book whether it's punk, zines, Chicago, Mexican culture.
Jules: You mentioned punk. I would love to wrap up our chat with a playlist from Malú. That would make this music-lover really happy. What punk tunes do you think she'd put on a mix tape? (And that's one of those questions I really hope no one else has already asked you.)
Celia: This has not been asked and is a tough question. There's so much! The cool thing is that it's so much easier for kids to discover all kinds of music now, unlike when I was a kid and you were often limited to what played on the radio (or MTV) or what people around you were listening to.
I'm approaching this mix tape based on how I envision Malú after the book ends. What might she get into as far as music goes? I can definitely see her starting a second all-girl band with Ellie—and Ellie's activism having an influence on her, making her more socially conscious. I can also see her becoming a little more interested in the non-punk music she hears at Calaca and at home, or at least not completely shunning it! Maybe she'll take up the saxophone inspired by the X-Ray Spex and Downtown Boys.
Okay, here's Malú's mix. By the way, I love that you used the term "mix tape.” Soo old-school! [Disclaimer: There's likely profanity in some of these songs. Don't make a copy of this for your kid, if you aren't cool with them hearing profanity.] Also, most of these songs can be found on Spotify (with the exception of Sin Quince and Spitboy. I think these are available through Bandcamp).
“I Am a Cliché” — X-Ray Spex
“No Hablo Español” — Fea
“Girl Germs” — Bratmobile
“Pretty Song” — Skinny Girl Diet
“Monstro” — Downtown Boys
“Rebel Girl” — Bikini Kill
“What Are Little Girls Made Of” — Spitboy
“Slow Song” — Sleater-Kinney
“Ayotzinapa” — Sin Quince
“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” — Selena
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.