Five questions for Celia C. Pérez

In Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers (Kokila/Penguin, 9–12 years), author Celia C. Pérez's follow-up to her 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book honoree The First Rule of Punk (Viking, 9–12 years), four oddball friends band together to fight injustice and solve a historical mystery. It's like Stand by Me without the dead body [murder]; or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants with activism and a (much-reviled) feathered hat.

1. Did this story start with the feathered hat or the friendships?

CCP: The friendships came first. I'd been reading about a scout troop in California called the Radical Monarchs and wanted to write a story about an alternative scout troop, about kids who perhaps don't have a lot in common besides the fact that they feel like outsiders in some way and who seek connections and sense of place outside of the traditional options their small town provides. The first draft only included the Ofelia and Lane characters and focused on their relationship. The next draft introduced Cat and Aster. It was through developing Cat's character as a bird-lover, and her involvement with the Floras, the local scout troop, that the feathered hat came into the story.

2. Which of the four protagonists was the most fun to write?

CCP: My very favorite character is Aster. I love her for being weird and awkward and nerdy and independent and, of course, because she's into making food. Personality-wise, I identify the most with her. I especially enjoyed writing her relationship with her grandfather. I would love to spend more time in her world.

3. In your article "When Google Translate Gives You Arroz con Mango: Erroneous Español and the Need for #ownvoices" you talked about the importance of cultural accuracy and specificity—even from within one's own culture. How do you double-check yourself?

CCP: I'm a librarian, so I can be a little obsessive about researching at times. Nerd alert: I kept a running list of topics I looked up while working on this book. I double-check my Spanish by using reference sources and asking others (including my editor, who is a Spanish-speaker). While Spanish was my first language, it isn't one that I use regularly, so while I feel pretty comfortable with my comprehension and spelling, I still like to check that it's correct — especially the accent marks! I research as much as I can about anything I need to know more about or want to verify if what I know is accurate. For The First Rule of Punk, I researched things I was already familiar with like punk and Mexican Americans in punk, as well as those that I wasn't as familiar with like the Bracero program. For Strange Birds, I used my own experience growing up in Miami, but also used my family as a reference since they're all still in Miami. The book is set in a fictional town but is based on a real place in South Florida, and I was fortunate to be able to spend some time there, read about the history of the area, and read about the history of Florida in general. Working with the Kokila team has also been great because there's such an emphasis on getting things as right as possible. The entire team read the manuscript and gave suggestions and posed questions. It helps that the group is made up of women from different backgrounds, different ages, different experiences. They also reached out to someone who read the manuscript with a focus on Aster's character and the history of Bahamians in South Florida. I feel lucky to have these personal and professional resources to be able to learn from.

4. Did you participate in any acts of civil disobedience, or "small revolutions," growing up?

CCP: The stories I write often come, in part, from a place of growing up feeling powerless and unable to express myself. My parents, especially my dad, had some conservative, old-school ideas. We weren't encouraged to speak up, and there was no such thing as getting into "good trouble." I think that's why I write characters who are the opposite, and especially why I write brown characters who are discovering that they have a voice, that they have rights, that their experiences matter, and that they have the power to at least work toward change.

5. We have to ask: If you were a "strange bird," what would you be?

CCP: If I were a strange bird, I would be a crow. They aren't the strangest or most exotic of birds, but I think we have a tendency to overlook the unique qualities and the beauty in things that are commonplace. I love that they're smart and resourceful. I love the sound of their abrasive cawing. And while we often think of birds as being delicate creatures, I think of crows as powerful and a little intimidating. I get a thrill when I hear them above in the trees calling to each other. Lately, there have been four of them hanging out in the trees on my street. They look like a gang of toughs. My dog and I are careful to not make eye contact when out for a walk — but if they invited me to join their gang I would!

From the August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Herald: Back-to-School.

Shoshana Flax
Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor of The Horn Book Magazine, is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons University. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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