April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

They’ve Got Moxie | In Conversation with Celia C. Pérez and Jennifer Mathieu

Celia C. Pérez and Jennifer Mathieu, authors of the recently published The First Rule of Punk (Viking, Aug. 2017; Gr 4-7) and Moxie (Roaring Brook, Sept. 2017; Gr 8 Up), respectively offer middle grade and young adult readers complex protagonists who express themselves and their incipient feminism and activism through zines. In Pérez’s book, punk music fan Malú is dealing with a move to Chicago when her divorced, “SuperMexican” mom accepts a two-year teaching position at a university, and the 12-year-old must leave behind her father and her friends and navigate a new middle school. Insight into her mother’s riot grrrl days inspires Moxie’s Vivian to take a stand against her high school administration’s blatant chauvinism and the sexist attitudes of her classmates. We spoke with the authors about their new books, then sat back while they continued the conversation.

DG: Your books are different in so many ways and target different age groups, but what I loved about both of them is their feisty protagonists who were able to find their voices through zines. Tell us about your—and your characters’ interest—in zines.

Celia C. Pérez: I first read about zines in Sassy magazine back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sassy was published between 1988 and about 1994 (it actually ceased publication in 1996, but in its last couple of years after it was bought from the original publisher, it became a typical teen magazine), and it was unlike anything that existed before or since. It had a column called Zine of the Month. Back in those days, if you wanted to order a zine from someone, you would write them a note and send well-concealed cash, being sure to tape coins securely to an index card. (Yes, we actually sent change through the mail!)

I ordered a few zines featured in Sassy, but I didn’t really get into creating them until I read a couple made by people involved in the punk scene in my college town. One was the No Idea fanzine, which was issued by a local punk record label of the same name. The other, the one that really made me catch the bug, was a zine titled America? by Travis Fristoe, who later become a friend and someone whose work as a punk librarian and a writer I really admired.

For me, the appeal of creating zines was the sense of ownership and empowerment. Writing and reading zines have always been about making connections with people and about self-expression, creating something that is a record of my life at a specific time. Because they are so easy to make, zines are a perfect medium for creative expression.

Zine making felt like the perfect way for a punk kid to tell the world about herself, and in The First Rule of Punk, that’s what Malú does. Through zines she is able to work out what is happening in her life. In the book, her zines offer readers a glimpse into her feelings, her thoughts, and the ways in which she is changing that they might not otherwise gather from the story alone.

Jennifer Mathieu: For Vivian in Moxie, the zines that inspire the Moxie movement she sets in motion come from the riot grrrl feminist punk scene that her mom was a part of in the early ’90s. As a child, she looked through her mother’s mementos, including her zines, but she sees them with fresh eyes as a student who is fed up with the sexist culture she experiences every day in her high school. To Vivian, and to me, too, riot grrrl zines such as Gunk and Girl Germs were about girls taking power for themselves and taking ownership of their lives. It’s about building community and a secret girl culture. They didn’t need anyone to tell them what they could publish and put out in the world. All they needed were some Sharpies and paper and access to a copy machine. That’s so appealing to Vivian, and it’s one reason why she kicks off her reactive Moxie movement with a zine.

DG: While Malú and Vivian struggle with family and school issues (a move, a new school, bullies, outdated school rules, a sexist culture), both have positive adult role models in their lives and find strength in new friends. Can you talk about these relationships? 

CCP: In Punk, Malú’s relationships with her new friends, both the kids at her school but especially the adults like Señora Oralia and Mrs. Hidalgo, allow her to see herself in a way she hadn’t before. It’s through her interactions with them that she begins to think about what it means to be Mexican American and what it means to identify as punk. Both her mom and Selena, the queen bee who serves as one of her antagonists in the book, are people Malú thinks she has nothing in common with, yet they reveal themselves as people who hold similar self-doubts. These relationships are important to Malú’s developing sense of identity; it’s through them that she is able to examine who she thought she was and who she truly is at heart.

JM: Do you know the old adage that when writing for children and teenagers, authors should get rid of the adults in their stories? That kids don’t want to read about adults? I completely disagree with it! Adults, for better or for worse, have an enormous impact on us when we are young. We all remember that one vindictive teacher or that inspiring coach. So starting with my second book, I’ve made it a point to explore the relationships between my teenage characters and the adults in their lives. In Moxie, Vivian’s mom is wonderful and supportive, but there’s tension between her and Vivian when she starts dating someone Vivian doesn’t approve of. That tension was something really interesting to explore, and I think many readers will relate to it—loving your parents but also beginning to see them as individuals with flaws and issues of their own.

CCP to JM: One of my favorite scenes is when Vivian goes through her mom’s zines and really sees them for the first time. Do you remember that moment of zine discovery for yourself?

JM: Oh yes, for sure. When I was in college, a friend of mine gave me a book called ’Zine by Pagan Kennedy. It was a compilation of all the issues of Pagan’s Head, a zine Kennedy made in her 20s. My friend gave me the book and said, “She reminds me of you.” Looking back now, that was such a compliment because not only was Kennedy’s zine awesome, she is an incredible fiction and nonfiction writer. I’m honored anyone would put us in the same category. Anyway, something about Pagan’s Head just blew my mind. It was confessional and funny and honest and real, and she made it with herself without a publisher or anything fancy. It was DIY, and I wanted to try zines, too, so I started making my own, titled Jennifer. Then I began reading and collecting more zines—I became addicted to them!

CP: I thought it was interesting that Kiera is the first person Vivian sees with the stars and hearts on her hands [that identify other students who are “tired” of all the attention the football team gets and that they can behave in any way they like]. She’s African American, but riot grrrl has been criticized for its whiteness (as you later point out). Was that a deliberate decision?

JM: It was a deliberate decision to make sure that was addressed in an explicit way. I loved the riot grrrl movement—it changed my life for the better—but as Kathleen Hanna and others have said, one issue riot grrrl faced was its clumsy handling of race. Essentially, a lot of its attempts to address race ended up becoming these white-centering experiences where white girls were being asked to be forgiven for their prejudice or rewarded for just acknowledging that racism exists. I wanted the Moxie Girls to learn from that and grow and make strides in changing it. Plus, Texas is diverse and I wanted my characters to reflect that. I’m not saying I did it perfectly, but it was important to me to try and address the issue. Above all, I want readers to know about the importance and beauty of intersectional feminism.

CCP to JM: Can we geek out about Sassy? I still mourn Sassy. Growing up in Miami in the ’80s and ’90s, I credit Sassy with being a window into this quirky, exciting world that I wanted to be a part of. I subscribed to the magazine until it was sold and went downhill. I have recollected issues over the years, too. Tell me about your relationship with it.

JM: OMG, Sassy! Yes! I was never a subscriber, because I was too afraid to ask my mom to buy a subscription for me. She probably would have said yes, but I thought she would consider it too provocative, so I never asked. I read all the issues at the library or at my friend Pam’s, who had a subscription. Sassy girls were so cool; I was fascinated by them and the way they talked about themselves. The magazine was almost zinelike in that way. I graduated from high school in 1994, so my teen years were Sassy‘s peak years of awesome. It was the first teen girl magazine to address sex and other topics with candor and humor, and I learned so much from reading it. I remember seeing a few issues after it was sold, and I was sad to see its decline. I’ll never forget the iconic Kurt and Courtney cover. That is just peak ’90s right there!

Jennifer Mathieu to Celia C. Pérez: What punk band do you wish you’d been a member of? (I choose Bikini Kill.)

CP: Wow, this is tough one. I love reading about the punk scene in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so I’m going to go with the Go-Go’s. They didn’t become famous as a “punk” band, but they came out of that scene. They wrote and played all their own music, which, I know, is weird to say, because no one says this about all-male bands. But I guess I can see how it’s a big deal when you’re coming from a history of female performers being traditionally girl groups who didn’t play instruments and sang songs written by men. Plus, as a child of the ’80s, I love their style.

JM to CCP: Your heritage is Cuban and Mexican, and mine is Cuban and Chilean. I was so excited to discover this about you. Malú’s background is Mexican American, so I was wondering if you ever want to explore writing about Cuba. I’m tackling that in my next novel, which is set in the ’80s and is about two teenagers whose mother left Cuba as part of the Pedro Pan Movement.

CCP: Definitely! I’m currently working on my next middle grade novel, and while I don’t have many details to share right now, I can tell you that it’s set in Miami, where I grew up, and the protagonist is Cuban American. To me It’s interesting that the two cultures that make up my identity are very different and that my relationship to them is also very different. So there’s a part of me that feels that I need to write about them separately. Perhaps someday I will write a Cuban/Mexican protagonist!

JM to CCP: [Just thinking…] maybe we should start a punk band of MG and YA authors….

CCP: I am not a musician, but we can totally start a MG/YA punk band!

EXTRAS! From Celia C. Pérez, How to Make a Zine: A Kid-Friendly DIY Guide; an excerpt from Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie; a look at some of Vivian’s zines; and the offical Tumblr for Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu


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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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