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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The First Rule of Middle Grade Fiction: Be Yourselves

The first rule of punk, according to Malú’s dad, is to be yourself – as if yourself is a single, easy-to-define, tangible something.   But when you’re in middle school, figuring out who you are is a lot more complicated than that.  first rule of punk

The First Rule of Punk has starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal and I agree with them all.  Malú is a relatable character, and the themes of the book both specific and universal.  The dichotomy of two very different parents each representing one important piece of Malú’s identity, makes a complicated concept digestible, if not slightly over-simplified.

Her embracing of one side, while totally denying the other feels very age-appropriate and her growing understanding of her complicated identity and the roles each of her parents play in it feels very true to middle school. This is the time when black and white goes grey.  The parent our protagonist is more critical of is the more responsible parent, whereas her admiration for her father, more absent and free-spirited, knows no bounds.  How painful, as a mother, it is to read her heavy critique of her loving mother, but how real, as a 12-year-old, that critique is.

Malú is headstrong, tantrumy, often wrong, and yet, to me, utterly likeable.  We’ve talked on other posts about likability and believability of our protagonists, in particular looking at Ethan in The Ethan I was Before  and Alex in See You in the Cosmos where Roxanne and I had differing opinions as to which character we believed in.  Malú, to me, is maybe the perfect not-perfect character.

Also, how about those zines!  So much fun, so interesting, so fact-filled.  A great way of imparting information into a non-information book without feeling forced and definitely without being boring.  How do we consider this book, and the zine component, in regards to Newbery.  The criteria says, “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”  What does that mean in this case?  I’d argue that it means that unless we see the design of the zines and the way they are inserted as detrimental to the overall book, we consider them only as part of the text.  But how?

Ultimately, I think the book is funny, easy to read and a delight to get through.  It is likeable!  Is it distinguished?  Does it need to be weightier to be Newbery worthy?  I would argue that it is absolutely distinguished and that it exemplifies excellence in presentation to a child audience.   What say you?


Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at


  1. Sharon: you and I agree on THIS one character! I adore Malú, and the zines, and find the adult and child side characters are also quite believable. I don’t know, though, whether the book, plot, character voice, and theme-wise, has distinguished itself from many other MG, realistic, self-searching/self-realizing titles – both in the long history of children’s books and in this year’s titles. The zines definitely make it different from many other titles (and I adore them) but could we consider them as a textual elevation of the book’s award worthiness?

  2. I’ve only just started this book, but about the zine element, although they are technically art, they are a highly textual art form, and as such I think should be considered of a piece with the text rather than an illustration apart like the pictures in PAX last year.

    • steven engelfried says:

      I would look at the zine parts like I would with a picture book, graphic novel, or illustrated non-fiction. There may be parts where the text, and the word choices the author makes, are not what makes a page work. The “self-portrait with cool T-shirt” (53) gives us an image of Malu that the words don’t….but we learn a lot about her in other places through the text. In the “Super-Mexican” zine, the word balloons with her mother’s parade of Mexico facts (76, 80) include the image of the mother, but the word choices help establish her character, and more importantly, the way Malu sees that character (annoying, yes, but also endearing, though Malu won’t admit it). If she had used words in the zines that just repeated what we know or for stuff unrelated to the rest of the book, it could be a negative, but I thought they contributed quite a bit to themes and characterizations.

  3. steven engelfried says:

    I did like this book a lot and am glad to have it on the shelves. And Malú’ does stand out as a character. Her relationships were well-developed without being overdone. I was glad that her friendship with Joe didn’t have to turn into romance. And that, although things between her and Selena got better, there was no dramatic Irish dancing breakthrough at the Alterna-Fiesta. But I did struggle with her mother. Though I appreciated the way we saw her through Malú’’s eyes, with light mockery of that earnestness, she still seemed like kind of a wooden, one-dimensional character. I know part of that comes from the way Malú’ looks at her, but I felt like there were just a few too many educational lectures from her, directed at Malú’ but also directed by author to reader, which too me out of the story. Though neatly framed within her role as “Super-Mexican,” these felt forced at times…even though the information was interesting.

    • I thought this was a delightful book for all the reasons already given, Malú’ is a completely realized, complicated, and endearing main character. Just loved her and her zines. That said, I appreciate Steven’s thoughts about the mother. For me, both parents seemed more plot-vehicles than fully developed characters. And since the mother is carrying a lot of the cultural material the author wants to communicate to her readers and is on site (the dad being elsewhere) she carries a lot that is important to the story. I liked the realistic hostile scenes between them and Malú’’s irritation as it seemed spot-on in terms of where she was as a developing person. But in contrast to the other mother (Joe’s) she seems unfortunately wooden.

      I also was a little uneasy with Joe’s mother leaving it to Malú’ to tell her mother about the alternate concert, being so laid back about it, not being (in my opinion) sufficiently firm about this. Of course, this was necessary for the plot, but it felt unrealistic to me given that all the parents in this story are sensible otherwise.

      • Monica, do you think Joe’s mother really never communicated to Malu’s mom about the band and the performance? I somehow thought that only Malu thought that — since her mom managed to surprise her at the festival with being there with her Dad. I thought the author was being quite clever and true to the perspective of a limited viewpoint character.

  4. Good point. Did seem so at the end.

    • Thinking a bit more about this. It does come down to child audience. As an adult I read wondering how Joe’s mother could be so cavalier and so forgot the details of the ending when writing my comment above. (Had a vague memory of a sort of deus ex machina tying everything up with a bow), but of course that was me the adult reading it — you are right, the author is being solidly and impressively staying in that limited POV. Well done! Your reminder ups the writing in my opinion though I still agree with Steven about the mother.

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