KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Maria Luisa is 12 years old. Her parents are divorced, and her mom just got a job at a new city. Things are not looking good. So Malu - that's the shortened version of her name, the version she prefers - puts on her headphones.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU REMEMBER ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO")
RAMONES: (Singing) Rock 'n, rock 'n' roll radio, let's go. Rock 'n, rock 'n' roll radio, let's go. Rock 'n...
MCEVERS: Malu is the main character in a new novel for middle-grade readers called "The First Rule Of Punk." It's punk that helps her as she moves to that new city and starts seventh grade. And it's not just that she's new. She's also struggling with who she is. Her mom is Mexican-American. Her dad is white. And the students at her school have some surprising thoughts about that.
Celia Perez wrote the book, and she is with us now. Welcome to the show.
CELIA PEREZ: Hi, thank you.
MCEVERS: Malu has a hard time with her mom. She calls her mom super Mexican because her mom's really, like, into her heritage as a Mexican-American. But then she sees her dad, who owns a record store and is really into punk, like, as super cool. So there's this dynamic, right? The one who's, like, into her heritage, she's tough and hard to relate to. But then dad's, like, super cool. How did you come up with that dynamic?
PEREZ: I think they're - I mean, I don't think I'm a cool person, but I think there's a little bit of both of those parents in me. So I thought it would be interesting to create these parents that give Malu these two very kind of strong parts of her identity. So...
PEREZ: ...I thought it would be fun to kind of pit them against each other and see how she works that out.
MCEVERS: And one way she does it is through this character, this woman that she meets when she moves to Chicago. Why don't you just tell us about Mrs. Hidalgo?
PEREZ: Mrs. Hidalgo is the mom of one of Malu's classmates. And she owns a coffee shop in the neighborhood, Calaca. And I think she's the adult that Malu maybe envisions herself as eventually growing into. She is not just a punk, but she is also really into her Mexican heritage. And when I started learning about Mexican-Americans in punk, those individuals kind of served a similar role for me.
MCEVERS: Yeah. There's this one band she mentions. It's The Brat. And we actually have some of it. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWIFT MOVES")
THE BRAT: (Singing) You won't forgive, but soon forget all the time we have spent. So again I get the shaft. Beer - what beer? I'll take a draught.
MCEVERS: And I - so yeah, Mrs. Hidalgo, like, plays Brat for Malu. And this really starts to change Malu.
PEREZ: Yeah. And in that scene, Mrs. Hidalgo says to her something along the lines of, you should know about your history. And up to that point, Malu only - you know, only thinks of her history as what her mom is trying to teach her. And so for her, you know, history kind of feels like this stuffy, unrelatable thing that she just has no interest in. And then when Mrs. Hidalgo introduces this band and says, this is - you know, this is your history, too, then she starts to - I think something starts to click for her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWIFT MOVES")
THE BRAT: (Singing) As he works the master plan.
MCEVERS: Most of the kids at Malu's school in Chicago are Mexican-American. And she actually gets teased for not being Mexican enough. It's where she hears the word coconut for the first time. And she doesn't even know what that word means.
PEREZ: Yeah. So she - when the story begins, she's living in Florida. And she lives in a town called Gainesville. And it's a small college town. And I think like most small college towns in the middle of, you know, wherever, it's predominantly white. And she has been surrounded by mostly white people during her life.
And so when she moves to Chicago, it's the first time that she is in an environment where she's surrounded by Mexican and Mexican-American people other than her own mom. And so here are these kids who are saying, you know, you're brown on the outside and white on the inside because you're into this type of music or you can't speak Spanish well or, you know, in her case she doesn't like cilantro...
PEREZ: ...Which is kind of the running joke. I'm - you know, I'm bicultural. I'm Cuban and Mexican. And I grew up in Miami, where there weren't in the '80s - I mean, my mom was the only Mexican person I knew growing up. And so when I moved to Chicago as an adult, I was surrounded by Mexican and Mexican-American people. And for the first time, I kind of thought, like, am I Mexican (laughter) - am I Mexican enough, you know? So there is - you know, there - I think it's something that I'm guessing a lot of kids deal with, especially as you're, you know, moving into generations, U.S.-born generations.
MCEVERS: In the end, Malu is able to reconcile some of these different parts of her identity - right? - the traditional, the punk, the American, the Mexican-American, the Mexican. But, you know, you get the sense that, like, it's not going to be perfect and easy going forward. And the thing that works for her without, you know, spoiling too much is just having people around you to support you. I don't know. What do you want young readers to take away from this book or even parents?
PEREZ: I like to joke that I wanted to write a book for brown weirdos just so kids who, you know, don't fit, like, the typical expectations of who they're supposed to be based on, you know, where they're from or how they look - I think I just wanted to really write about identity and about how, you know, there is no one way to be anything. And I just wanted to kind of get across that there are so many different ways to be Latino.
And I always feel like if you look at the title and you think, oh, "The First Rule Of Punk," if it's a book about punk and I'm not into punk, it's not really for me - but it really is about just the idea of being yourself and of creating in the world what you don't see. And I think that in this book Malu does that. She doesn't see how she can be these two things. But she - through the help of the people around her, she creates this - you know, this new way of being able to see herself and of being able to accept herself.
MCEVERS: Do you have a suggestion for a song we should go out on?
PEREZ: Yeah. The Plugz, "La Bamba."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BAMBA")
THE PLUGZ: (Singing in Spanish).
MCEVERS: Nice. That's great. Well, Celia Perez, thank you so much.
PEREZ: Thank you so much, Kelly. I appreciate it.
MCEVERS: That's Celia Perez. Her new book is called "The First Rule Of Punk."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BAMBA")
THE PLUGZ: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.