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Strange Birds, Baseball, and Snacks: A Q&A with Celia C. Pérez

In 2017, I talked with librarian, author, and zine aficionado Celia C. Pérez about her debut novel, The First Rule of Punk. That book went on to make some people happy.

In 2018, Celia participated in a panel of Pura Belpré award winners I moderated for a live episode of The Yarn podcast.

And now in 2019 Celia has a new book called Strange Birds (four starred reviews and counting). It arrives on September 3rd, and I’m pleased to keep our pre-pub interview tradition alive.

(Click here to look inside the book)

Travis: Hi Celia! How’s your summer going?

Celia: My summer is going, going, gone! By the time this is posted, I’ll be back at my library job after a nice long summer break. Despite not getting as much writing done as I should have and would have liked to, it’s been good.

My son plays travel baseball so there was a lot of time spent watching games. Watching him play is one of my great joys in life, even if I have to do it while wearing a winter coat and / or rain boots because with the exception of winter, Chicago seasons are bizarre. I’ve been doing a lot of decluttering and Marie Kondoing too which is very satisfying.

And, of course, lots of reading! I’ve been reading more books written for adults after a long period of reading middle grade almost exclusively. I’ve also been seeking mystery recommendations for readers of any age so if you have any, float them my way.

Travis: Hmm. The last mystery I read was The Clock in the Walls by John Bellairs. I liked it.

What was the best thing and/or most challenging thing about the success of The First Rule of Punk?

Celia: So many good things have happened for this book that it’s hard to pick just one. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a place for my stories and that people of all ages and from all kinds of backgrounds have connected with the book. My hope is that the it lives on years after reviews or awards have been given, that it continues to find an audience.

One challenge that comes to mind is writing a second book, the terror perhaps amplified by the success of a first book!

I know the expectation is that it would be the opposite, but it’s hard not to experience doubt and fear. You don’t want to let yourself down, you don’t want to let your readers down. I think it’s natural to feel that way, right? Right?

Travis: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. How was the process of writing Strange Birds different from First Rule of Punk?

It was a very different process for a number of reasons. When I wrote The First Rule of Punk, I wrote it for myself.

I didn’t have an agent or an editor or any kind of publishing history, so the pressure those things can bring to the creative process didn’t exist. It was a story I knew because a lot of if was my own story.

As a second book, Strange Birds was a different process in part because of the challenge I mention in my answer to the previous question. There are those internal challenges, but also the external challenge of writing a book that, structurally, was different.

I think of Strange Birds as multiple stories in one–the story of each girl, the story of the group, the story of a town, even the stories of some of the adult characters. Keeping all of those arcs moving toward a resolution was tricky.

My writing process tends to be very visual so I found myself having to physically lay out and map out a lot in order to see where everything was going. I’m very lucky that I have an editor who pushes me to embrace those challenges and who believes in me and my ability to find my way through it all.

Strange Birds is a very different book but I think it contains threads that connect it to The First Rule of Punk.

I’m really proud of it and the work the whole team at Kokila and Penguin have done, and I hope that readers love it as much as I do.

Travis: Independence is a theme in Strange Birds. Were there moments in your life you drew on when writing about this?

Celia: I grew up with a very strict Cuban father so Ofelia’s experience as the child of Cuban immigrants who are overprotective is somewhat based on those memories of my parents being really afraid for us and being so distrusting of the world. Although, Ofelia should know that her parents are a little more flexible than my dad ever was. My dad was from the school of thought that young ladies don’t go out without a chaperone.

I think I often write from two places–from my memories of being a kid and from my experiences as a parent. I wasn’t especially eager to be independent at twelve or thirteen. I lived inside books and never felt an urgency to be out in the world on my own or with friends. But I saw my older sister struggle with this a lot. And now, as a parent of a thirteen-year-old, I see his desire for independence coming through. I’m trying to figure out how to encourage him to be careful when he’s out in the world without making him fearful of everything, which is tough. He thinks I’m overprotective, but I have yet to send him out with a chaperone. It’s sometimes helpful to work some of this out through the eyes of other families in my stories.

Travis: Yeah, that line between careful/fearful can be tough to navigate.

A very important final question. Any new snacks I should be aware of?

Celia: Funny you should ask because I’ve just gotten hooked on a new snack.

Travis: Oh, good! Let’s hear it.

Celia: I could live on rice and dried seaweed (and coffee) so imagine my excitement when I came across Dang’s savory seaweed sticky-rice chips.

They make different flavors, and I’m sure they’re all fine, but you can’t beat seaweed in my book. They’re like little rice cake chips which doesn’t sound appealing at all, I know, but they have that delicious umaminess I love. Umaminess–is that a word?

Travis: Maybe? But I know what you mean. Thanks for the chat Celia, and best of luck with Strange Birds!

Find Celia C. Pérez on . . .




About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.