It’s tempting to focus on the similarities between author Celia C. Pérez and María Luisa O’Neill-Morales, the 12-year-old protagonist of the writer’s debut novel, The First Rule of Punk (Viking, Aug.). Both are bicultural, both are fans of punk music and making zines, and neither cares for cilantro. But Pérez is just as aware of their differences. “I wasn’t into punk music [at that age] or as self-confident as she is,” she says of Malú—as her character prefers to be called. And whereas Pérez is the child of Mexican and Cuban immigrants, Malú is a third-generation American.
If anything, Pérez sees herself as a blend of some of her novel’s key female characters: Malú, her mother (dubbed “SuperMexican” by her daughter, since she is “always trying to school me on stuff about Mexico and Mexican-American people”), and Mrs. Hidalgo, a hip café owner who embodies Mexican-American and punk cultures in a way that thrills Malú. “One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I wanted to explore how being Latino is such a different experience for different people, depending on where they are generationally or geographically,” Pérez says. “I have often felt that I’m not Mexican or Cuban or Latino enough, depending on where I am.”
Pérez describes identity, family, and community as “the heart of the book,” but another aspect of the middle grade novel is Malú’s adjustment to life in Chicago. Raised in Miami, Pérez also relocated to the Windy City, moving there in 2001 with her husband after taking a job as a college librarian.
The now-defunct Sassy magazine was Pérez’s introduction to the world of underground zines in the late 1980s, and she decided to try making her own after becoming aware of the punk scene in Gainesville while attending the University of Florida. “I didn’t play an instrument, but I liked being able to create something that was similar to what these bands were doing,” she says. “I always loved to write, and it felt like the perfect format for me at the time. I was able to write about what I wanted to write about, and the editing could be as grueling—or not—as I wanted it to be, since it would only be read by me and a couple of my friends.”
College was also where Pérez began to realize how absent Latino writers and characters had been from her upbringing. “I didn’t really didn’t think about it until I read a book and thought, ‘This character mirrors my experiences.’ ” The book was José Antonio Villareal’s Pocho, which she read in an “ethnic literature” class. “Because where else would you read Latino writers?” she deadpans. “That was the first time I thought, ‘Why don’t I see more of these characters in books? Where are those stories?’ ”
Pérez doesn’t remember reading picture books as a child but says she was a strong reader. “Third grade is when I first started thinking of myself as a reader,” she says; she has a particular fondness for Witch’s Sister by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. “It was the first book that I owned, and I still own it,” Pérez says. “In my house, we couldn’t really afford to buy books. It wasn’t something that we did.”
Pérez didn’t think of writing her own children’s fiction until she became a parent, reading classics she’d never read before, by the likes of Robert McCloskey and Virginia Lee Burton, and seeking out books by and about Latinos. Around 2012, Pérez wrote a version of The First Rule of Punk with a younger main character. After later rewriting it with Malú as a 12-year-old, she sent the manuscript to agent Stefanie Von Borstel at Full Circle Literary, whom she had met during an ALA conference.
Pérez signed with Von Borstel in 2015, worked with her to polish the manuscript, and sold The First Rule of Punk, at auction, to Joanna Cárdenas at Viking in a two-book deal. “There were parts of the story and characters that needed more developing, and Joanna was just fantastic about asking the questions that were going to lead me down the right path,” she says.
Pérez is currently working on her second book, also middle grade, which she isn’t ready to say much about other than that it’s set in her hometown of Miami. “I never thought I would write about my hometown,” she admits. She describes the response to The First Rule of Punk as “cool and overwhelming,” and loves that the book is helping introduce children to zine and punk culture, as well as finding its way to older readers. “I’ve had adults read it and to say to me that it’s the first time they have seen themselves in a book,” Pérez says. “Which is a little sad, but I know that feeling, too.”