Review of the Day: The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez
They don’t warn you in library school. They’ll tell you about all the cool children’s books you’ll get to read. They’ll stress how you’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of kids by introducing them to books they might never find on their own. They’ll talk about the glory of the profession, and rightly so. But they won’t tell you about Middle Grade Novel Burnout. It’s a killer, that one. You see, if you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain. You know what hasn’t faded? The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez. A riotous, raucous conglomeration of Zine art, Mexican-American punk rock, and a nicely flawed protagonist with enough verve and oomph to keep those pages turning, I’m happy to say this book distinguishes itself from the pack. Even if there is the occasional lunchroom scene or two.
When your mom is SuperMexican life is tough. And when SuperMexican announces that you are moving with her for two years from Gainesville, Florida to Chicago, Illinois, away from your beloved father and friends, you’re allowed to get peeved. The trouble is that Malu doesn’t think she has ANYTHING in common with her mom. Malu doesn’t like cilantro, loves punk music, makes Zines, and has absolutely no interest in connecting with her Mexican roots, so to speak. Still, Chicago isn’t quite what she expected. And when the chance comes up to put together her own ragtag punk band, she finds that sometimes you follow the rules, sometimes you break the rules, and sometimes it’s a lot more fun to just go on out and make your own rules.
First and foremost, Ms. Perez makes sure right from the start that kids reading this book will find it fun. That’s why right after the very first chapter we get our first glimpse at Malu’s Zines. Now I’ve seen novels like this work in doodles and line art all the time. But wrack my brain though I might, I cannot remember a single time that I’ve ever seen Zines as a way of breaking up the text. It’s seems so obvious, but it would only really work if it was consistent with the main character’s personality. Check and check on that front. Ms. Perez isn’t interested in weighing you down with some almighty tome. There’s fun to be had in them thar pages, and she’s going to show you that right from the get-go.
Adults reading this book definitely will have a different take on a lot of the scenes, character, and elements than a kid would. Perfect Example A: Malu’s dad. One of Malu’s more prominent flaws is her complete and utter blind adoration of her father. To her, the guy could do no wrong. He’s cool (owns a record store, introduces his daughter to punk rock, plays music, etc.) so therefore he’s the perfect parent, right? Kids will undoubtedly be inclined to agree with Malu on this point. Wouldn’t you rather stay with: your rocker dad or your uptight uncool mom? But to any adult reading this book Malu’s dad has warning signs written all over him. Put another way, the dude’s a loser. Not a total loser. He’s a good dad, insofar as it goes. But when it comes to being a practical parent who could support his kid solo for months at a time, don’t rely on him. Malu’s mom (who, from the way she puts up with the kid’s attitude, verges on having the patience of a saint) knows this full well. So does he, for that matter. It’s just Malu and the kids reading this book who may be unaware of the situation in full.
One thing that kids won’t remain ignorant of are the moments when Ms. Perez slips in some old-fashioned learning. Now she has an Ace up her sleeve in at least one respect. The Zine format allows her to work in pretty much anything she wants, just so long as it has art and good design. Hence we’re able to hear about “Punk Senorita” Marianne Elliott-Said and not feel like we’ve been handed a history lesson. This could all have backfired, however, if the story itself had had an abundance of history cluttering up the pages. Instead, it’s woven in subtly. As an example, one of the highlights of the book for me is when Malu discovers that in Chicago there has been a strong punk Mexican American scene. Actual bands are name dropped like The Zeroes, Alice Bag, the Plugz, and the Brat. One does wonder why Malu’s dad didn’t bother to seek out any of this information for his daughter himself, but that’s neither here nor there.
I was discussing this book with another reader the other day when they mentioned that they found Malu’s attitude towards her change in life, venue, and situation “too young” for her age. At the time I had to process that comment for myself. Malu is a middle school kid, just hovering at the cusp of adolescence. Honestly, when I sat down and thought about it, I actually found her attitude to be a bit mature for her age. She’s doing full on teenage tantrums much younger than you’d usually expect. Is she immature? Completely! But she’s immature in a self-absorbed, narcissistic way. You know. Teen-age stuff! Malu is so complete wrapped up in her own head that she does come close to distancing the reader emotionally several times. You want your heroine to be headstrong but not stupid. To speak her mind but not be too much of a jerk. Kids will give their protagonist a lot of leeway when it comes to parental units, but you can only lead them in that direction so far, so it’s up to the author to know exactly where to draw the line. Ms. Perez does a pretty good job in that department. You sympathize with Malu, but you’re also allowed to disagree with some of her choices. Trust me when I say that a protagonist that’s always right is a pretty dull person to read about. Other middle grade novels will prove that much to you.
I wouldn’t call it a perfect novel. The propensity of grown-ups to break rules for Malu happens repeatedly and is most unbelievable when a fellow parent is in on the conspiracy. The principal that promises fire and destruction in the event of an alternative Fiesta doesn’t seem too miffed later. And a mom apologizing for freaking out when her daughter dyed her hair green? That’s where it totally lost me. Sorry, kids. Moms will be freaking out moms. But at its best The First Rule of Punk is like a Mexican-American High Fidelity meets School of Rock for kids. A game plan for taking expectations and giving them a personal twist. And hey, any book that inspires kids to make their own Zines is a-okay with me.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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