Celia C. Pérez’s new novel, following her middle grade debut, The First Rule of Punk, is a story about heritage, activism, and friendship, and is the fourth novel from Penguin’s just-launched Kokila imprint. Told from the perspectives of four girls, each with distinctly different personalities and experiences, Strange Birds follows them as they create an alternative scout troop and come together to inspire awareness and change in their community. Pérez spoke with PW about the real-life troop that inspired the premise of her story, what led to a four-character cast, and her hope for the impact of her stories.
What was your inspiration for Strange Birds and its themes of activism and cooperation?
I think the initial inspiration came from reading about the Radical Monarchs, a scout troop formed in Oakland a few years ago. One of the co-founders was a Latina woman whose daughter wanted to join the Girl Scouts. She started thinking about her daughter’s place in an organization like the Girl Scouts and realized that she wanted her daughter to be involved in a group that centered her daughter’s place in her community as a brown girl. With a friend, she formed the group, which was originally named the Radical Brownies. The organization, renamed the Radical Monarchs, has been growing over the last few years and is creating additional troops in the Oakland area. Their focus is activism and involvement in the community and the girls learn about their history and their place in their own communities, which are primarily brown and black communities. I liked the idea of taking something that’s traditional, like the Girl Scouts, and changing it up to fit your needs and who you are. In The First Rule of Punk, Malú learns a lot about her own heritage through discovering that there were Mexican-American people involved in the early days of punk. I like the idea of taking traditions and flipping them on their heads to make them work for who you are as an individual.
The novel features four characters, each with their own unique backgrounds and reasons for joining the scout troop. How did you develop each of your characters and ensure that their individual storylines would form a cohesive whole?
That was a tricky challenge. The very first draft of the story had only two characters: Ofelia and Lane. The story focused on their friendship developing over the summer. Then I talked with my editor about the Radical Monarchs. We spoke about how there aren’t enough books about brown kids out in nature having adventures and about the boy-centric movies, especially of the ’80s, like Stand by Me and The Sandlot. Where were these stories for girls? So, the group became larger and I created two additional characters in the tradition of those ’80s movies.
All of the characters have a little bit of me in them, but I wanted the group to have different personalities, interests, and backgrounds so that, along with the development of their friendship, they develop an awareness of their community and how their experiences are different depending on where they live within that community. I grew up in Miami; Sabal Palms is based on an area a little bit south of Miami called Coconut Grove and on the neighborhood I grew up in called Allapattah. Both of those areas, just like all south Florida, are very diverse. I wanted these girls to reflect the make-up of south Florida, which is why I introduced a character who is Bahamian, whose family has been part of the town for a long time because Bahamians were important to the founding of Coconut Grove and Miami, and the characters with Cuban backgrounds. Because each character was so different, I felt that each needed a story within the larger story, so they are at once telling their own stories and the story of the group, but from their specific point of view.
How has working with the team at Kokila impacted your writing and this book?
It’s been a very hands-on experience. We’re all on the same page as far as what we’re looking for in stories. Since it’s such a small group, each of the four women who run the imprint read the first draft. Each gave input and suggestions and asked questions. That was important because they are coming from different backgrounds and ages, so it was cool to get varied feedback and questions that I might not have thought to ask, being so immersed in the story.
There’s really a focus [at Kokila] on being as accurate as possible in representation, which I think is great because I’m a librarian and I love the research part of writing. My goal is always to get whatever information I’m using as accurate as I possibly can.
What do you hope readers gain from experiencing your stories?
The types of stories I write come from my own experiences as a reader growing up and from not seeing varied representation of Latinos in books and, as a parent, still looking for those books for my own son and other children.
When I start writing a book, I don’t have a set path. I don’t outline; the story develops as I write it. One of my favorite things is to hear what readers get from the book because it changes depending on whether the reader is an adult or a child and Latino or not. I think that everyone takes what they need from books. My hope is that people walk away from mine with whatever they needed, whether that’s a push to be more active in their community, an openness to make connections outside of their immediate community, or even an interest in bird conservation.
Strange Birds by Celia C. Pérez. Kokila, $16.99 Sept. 3 ISBN 978-0-425-29043-9