Revolution Kid Style Now!*: Writing Books (About Kids) That Break the Rules

As someone who writes books about kids who break rules, I keep waiting for it to happen. I’m waiting for the moment when an adult points out that the protagonists in my books are disagreeable troublemakers. These kids lie and sneak. Sometimes they do illegal things. Yes, illegal things. Twelve-year-olds! In my latest middle-grade novel, Strange Birds, there’s a break-in, vandalism, attempted theft, graffiti, sabotage, and lots of good old-fashioned snubbing of authority figures. And that’s in the first chapter alone. Just kidding. I spread it out across the story, hoping adults won’t notice.

When people ask if my protagonists are me, my response is: I wish! They are, in many ways, who I would like to have been at twelve: bold, fearless, outspoken, questioning. I was nothing like that. In my world, there were few things worse than being seen as a “bad” kid, someone who broke rules, and who didn’t do as she was told. I was terrified of being labeled a “bad” kid. It seemed like you were one or the other, a good kid or not. There was no gray area. I grew up straitlaced, with a fear of authority instilled in me by my parents.

Yes, I still blame everything on my immigrant parents. We learned that things were the way they were for good, if at times long-forgotten, reasons. Rules were made by someone who, surely, knew better than us.

Growing up, I don’t recall there being a lot of focus in school on what it meant to protest or to practice civil disobedience, despite learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks every year. I remember reading about Mary Beth and John Tinker and seeing a photo of them wearing their black armbands, protesting the Vietnam War. Even though they were kids, like me, I never really connected myself with the idea that young people had power. Protesting injustices and questioning unfair practices were things people in history books did.

I don’t consciously write rule breakers. Sometimes I don’t know what my characters will do until they’re doing it, and I’m taken along for the ride. But I suppose it is natural that as a kid who grew up feeling powerless and who bottled up anger and outrage about things that didn’t make sense — rules, laws, traditions, grownups — it all comes out in characters who don’t take crap from adults. And as an adult, I can confirm that sometimes we are full of crap.

When you think about it, books for young readers are a perfect place to teach kids to question, to expose them to concepts like civil disobedience, and to introduce them to other ways to express themselves and to exert power in our society. Once kids hit puberty, everything becomes worthy of their wrath. Imagine kids understanding that they can channel some of those feelings into something bigger than the individual, something that can affect their communities and beyond. Aren’t we all just waiting for kids like Greta Thunberg to save us anyway?

In his essay “The Problem Is Civil Obedience,” historian Howard Zinn wrote: “Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” Sometimes we adults forget that this is the real problem.

I enjoy breathing life into characters who challenge and question and disobey adults in a way I never felt I had the power or the right to do. Yes, my books include break-ins, vandalism, attempted theft, graffiti, sabotage, and lots of good old-fashioned snubbing of authority figures. Intertwined with those less-than-desirable acts there is also creativity, independence, resourcefulness, protest, civil disobedience, self-expression, and standing up for what’s right. And at the center of it all are kids who care and who feel empowered to change their world.

 

*The title references the name of the 1991 album by Bikini Kill, Revolution Girl Style Now, which became a catchphrase associated with Riot Grrrl as a call to action for girls and women to participate, create, and stake their claim in male-dominated punk culture.

 

From the May/June 2020 Horn Book Magazine Special Issue: Breaking the Rules.

Celia C. Pérez
Celia C. Pérez

Celia C. Pérez is the author of The First Rule of Punk (Viking), a 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book honoree and a Pura Belpré Author Honor book winner, and Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers (Kokila/Penguin). When not writing about quirky kids who break rules, she works as a community college librarian in Chicago. She is a former co-chair of REFORMA's Children and Young Adult Services Committee and served on the 2014 Pura Belpré Award committee.

 

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