I Want You Around: The First Rule of Punk is the middle-grade novel we needed by Rachel Rosenberg
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez is the sort of middle-grade read that I used to yearn for during my pre-teen years. Back in the dinosaur days of the early 1990s (when I was a punk-rock-loving 12-year-old old), books aimed at my age were fun but definitely not representative of subcultures or political movements. Having a book like this would have been wonderful, because childhood can be alienating for those who have interests outside the mainstream. Celia C. Pérez incorporates themes of culture and identity while threading the story with vibrant zine pages, energetic storytelling and detailing that draws the reader into a relatable world.
Malú (who hates her full name, María Luisa) has been dragged away from her beloved, record-store owner father because her mother has begun a new job in Chicago. Her mother Megaly — whom she refers to sarcastically as “SuperMexican” — and her have a complicated relationship because Malú doesn’t feel comfortable speaking Spanish, is a vegetarian and won`t conform to her mother’s idea of her “ideal Mexican American señorita”. Worrying that her father will forget about her, Malú feels crushed and isolated by the move. Perez creates a wonderful zine that addresses these fears, the first of many that give added depth to the character’s complicated feelings. Taking strength from her musical idols and advice from her dad (“Be yourself”), she pancakes on the punkest makeup she can find and drags herself off to her new school.
Posada Middle School has a dress code though, and punk make-up is definitely not allowed under it. Her new school has a high population of Mexican American students and teachers and Malú, who is only half-Mexican, feels immediately disconnected. Matters are made worse when a popular girl, Selena,calls her a coconut — dark on the outside but white on the inside. Malú’s conflicted feelings about having a Mexican mother and white father are made stronger here, knowing that no one really sees her as one of them. Still, the dress code violation allows Malú to meet fellow misfit Joe, and eventually she convinces him and two other students to start a punk rock band called The Co-Cos.
Joe’s mother, it turns out, is herself a punk rock vegetarian and this character definitely and sometimes too-conveniantly helps to ease some of the tension between Megaly and Malú. She introduces Malú to some Mexican punk bands, which allows a bridge for Malú’s identity to come together. The Co-Cos sign up for the school’s talent contest, practicing endlessly, but are rejected from the audition process because their music doesn’t adhere to Principal Riviera’s sense of traditionalism. The band protests, leading to a resolution that, punk or not, even the conformists can get behind. Selena half-compliments Malú with “I was going to tell you that it was kind of weird…But it wasn’t so bad.”
As a character, Malú is very both loveable and frustrating (just like real people!). There are times when she’s painfully bratty in her dealings with her mother, sometimes her harsh attitude toward her mom made me wince. It’s true, though, that relationships between mothers and daughters can be fraught — especially when a child isn’t living up to the parent’s ideal. Though Malú doesn’t always live up to her own ideal either; she favours the 70s punk that her record shop owning dad likes, but spends a lot of time worrying that having feelings isn’t punky enough. She seems to maybe not be fully aware that punk itself had layers to it. For instance, The Ramones, one of her favourite hands, , even recorded a romantic love song with their classic ‘I Want You Around’. In the end, that’s the real lesson, as Joe tries to wisely explain: “Your problem is, you think punk is about the way someone looks. Or the music someone listens to.” By the end, Malú is working to fit the different parts of her, which can be as mismatched and jagged as the content of a zine. It’s a life-long task that takes work and understanding, and our heroine is working through it just fine.
Rachel Rosenberg is a library technician and aspiring writer in Vancouver, BC. She was once published in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul 2, a fun fact that she likes to spring on people at parties. Alongside the obvious reading and writing, her favorite things include traveling, cozy sweaters and wacky dancing. Please visit her website at rarosenberg.com