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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Dorothy's List: 'The First Rule Of Punk' Celebrates Being Yourself (And Rocking Out)

A teacher holds an open book and points at it while students look on.
Meg Malone
Orleans Elementary School humanities teacher Kyle Chadburn shows examples of 'zines from "The First Rule of Punk," before the students worked on their own.

A group of fifth- and sixth-graders are in the library of Orleans Elementary School working on making “'zines.” 'Zines are like personal mini magazines, and they're a favorite hobby of Malú, the main character in The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez.

"The first ‘zine page that I would like us to make is going to be sort of what she [Malú] did in the beginning which is: here is a ‘zine about me," explained humanities teacher Kyle Chadburn to the students. "So you’re going to be creating a ‘zine page about you."

The First Rule of Punk is nominated for this year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award, and this group of Dorothy's List readers got to work drawing pictures, creating pictograms and writing words and symbols that describe themselves. There are cats, musical notes, portraits of friends and family, and even a couple of depictions of the Orleans village welcome sign, with its signature fish.

A student works on a 'zine at a table in a library.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR
Kyler Sylvester works on a 'zine page at Orleans Elementary School. Kyler was curious about why the author made 'zines part of the novel.

One sixth-grader was curious about why the author made 'zines play a role in the story.

Kyler Sylvester: "What was your inspiration or purpose for including ‘zines in this book?"

Celia C. Pérez: "So I became interested in ‘zines around the same time that I became interested in punk music. They sort of are part of the same subculture that is very much based on this concept of DIY, which stands for 'Do It Yourself.' And that basically means create things yourself if you want them to exist. ...

"So for a very long time — much longer than you have been alive — I have been making ‘zines. And for me ‘zines were always a way to express myself and to sometimes work through things that I was thinking about and to write about things that I was interested in. And so, when I was writing Malú’s character, I thought it would be good for her to have a similar way to express herself."

Twelve-year-old María Luisa, better known by her nickname Malú, dances to the beat of her own drummer in the book. She’s a ‘zine-making, punk music-loving, skateboarding vegetarian.

"I wanted Malú to ... learn that punk was more than just the music, but it was going to be the way that she would decide to figure out her place in the world and in her community." — Author Celia C. Pérez

Malú’s parents are divorced, but they’re still a close family. She gets her love of all things punk from her dad, who owns a record store where they live in Florida. Her mom is a college professor, and Malú calls her "SuperMexican."

Malú thinks her mom’s goal in life is to turn her into an ideal Mexican-American señorita, but she feels there are some problems with that. First of all, Malú struggles with Spanish. And she doesn’t even like cilantro – a staple herb in Mexican cooking.

Malú likes her life in Florida, so she’s not happy when her mom takes a two-year teaching assignment in Chicago, and Malú has to go with her. That means moving to a state far from her dad and starting over in a new middle school.

*More from NPR — "Celia Perez's 'The First Rule Of Punk' Comes With Advice For Adolescents" [Sept. 1, 2017]*

One fifth-grade student wondered how much the author and Malú have in common.

Anika Lafoe: “Did you base Malú’s character on yourself, or is she made up?"

Celia C. Pérez: “So Malú’s character is a little bit of both of those things. She is mostly made up but … there’s some things about her that are based on my own life and on my own self.

"So, in case you didn’t notice she’s a little bit of a crank. She’s a little cranky. And that’s a little bit based on me and on wanting to see other characters — especially female characters — who are not always, you know, just full of sunshine and joy … who are, you know, sometimes a little not happy and questioning and pushing back. And so, I think that part is based on me."

Celia C Perez stands before a microphone wearing headphones and holds up a copy of her novel The First Rule of Punk
Credit Shawn Ballman, Courtesy
Author Celia C. Perez holds up 'The First Rule of Punk' while in the recording studio at SUM1 in Chicago, ready to answer questions from Orleans students.

A sixth-grade student had a question about Malú's family life, which made the author stop and think.

Eli Dunlavey: "Why did you decide to make Malú an only child and for her parents to be divorced?"

Celia C. Pérez: "I hadn’t really thought about it until now why I would make her an only child…"

Pérez said she's the mother of an only child, so that influenced her decision. But there are other reasons, too:

Celia C. Pérez: "As someone who is not an only child, I imagine that being an only child is maybe a little more challenging when things come up that you need support from others. Because, depending on the relationships that you have with your siblings, you could find that with your siblings.

"But if you don’t have siblings then you have to find that somewhere else. And that is what eventually happens with Malú. She has to find support from this cast of characters that she meets in Chicago. So thank you for making me think about that.

"And then, as far as having her parents be divorced … when I started writing the story, I knew that I wanted her to be moved from a place … that is familiar to her, to a place that is not familiar at all. And that’s a little scary and that is challenging to her. And part of that is a geographical move, where she has to leave Florida and go to Chicago.

"But I also thought it would be even more challenging for her to be moved from the person that she identifies with most and have to travel, you know, solely with the person that she feels like she doesn’t identify with at all, of her two parents."

*Listen to the podcast above to hear Pérez read an excerpt from The First Rule Of Punk about Malú and her dad's last night together before her move.*

A student works on a 'zine at a library table and then the same student holds up the 'zine they have been working on
Credit Meg Malone / VPR
At left, Ben Roberts works on a 'zine page; at right, Ben shows what has been included in his about me 'zine.

Her dad’s record store is Malú’s favorite place to be. One Orleans sixth-grader said he’s never been in a record store and he wondered about the author's choice to have that setting.

Ben Roberts: "Have any friends and family ever owned a record store, and why did you decide to include that in the story?"

Celia C. Pérez: "So I don’t know anyone personally who has owned a record store. But I have been to a lot of really great independently-owned record stores and that was a big inspiration for that part of the story and for that being what … Malú’s dad does."

*Share Malú's love of music? — Author Celia C. Pérez made a playlist to go with the book. Find it on her website.*

It was hard for Malú to move away from her dad, and once she gets to Chicago, Malú doesn’t get off to a good start at her new school. On the first day, her punk look earns her a trip to the cafeteria for a lecture on violating the school dress code. She gets a talking-to, along with a boy with blue hair and kids wearing clothing the school deems inappropriate.

One fifth-grade student recalled that scene in the novel: 

Kaleb Ste. Marie: "There was a character in the book that had blue hair and had to wash it out because it was one of the school violations."

In contrast, there was a lot of self-expression going on when we visited Orleans Elementary School. It was Spirit Week — specifically, Crazy Hair Day. We should note that on this particular day, Kaleb was actually sporting blue hair.

A student with short blue hair holds up a handrawn page of a zine about himself.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR
Kaleb Ste Marie holds up a handmade 'zine page, inspired by the 'zines from the novel.

Kaleb also had a question for the author about Malú's punk lifestyle.

Kaleb Ste Marie: “Why did you decide to write about Malú trying to be punk in the book?"

Celia C. Pérez: "When I got into punk it was a really important thing for me because, just like Malú, at first I was really just into the music. But what I eventually learned to love the most about it is seeing other people — people my age, young people — making things and creating things in the world that didn’t exist just because they wanted to see it exist and because they knew that they had the power to do that if somebody else didn’t give them that permission.

"So, I wanted Malú to learn that about herself too and learn that punk was more than just the music, but it was going to be the way that she would decide to figure out her place in the world and in her community."

And it’s clear from their ‘zine pages and participation in Spirit Week, being part of their community is important for these Orleans students too.

A thin grey line.

Special thanks to Orleans Elementary School humanities teacher Kyle Chadburn. Next month, after all the student votes are counted, Dorothy’s List will share with you the winner of this year’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award. Stay tuned!

In the mean time, find past episodes ofDorothy's Listhere — and did you know the list of next year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award nominees has been released? Find out which books made the 2019-2020 list here.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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