Teaching Middle-Grades Fiction at the University Level
A question I was asked a few weeks ago got me thinking back to a course I taught in the spring, and my decision to include a middle-grades novel in the syllabus. With the heavy emphasis on Lexile measures in my kids' schools, more than a few of my peers questioned the logic of assigning such a text to upper-level college students—particularly in a course that was not explicitly about children's literature or geared toward future educators. Yet the experiment was a resounding success, so I wanted to reflect on it a bit more here.
I should note that I have long taught young adult (YA) fiction in my literature courses, particularly in recent years. Phenomenal work by writers such as Tomi Adeyemi, Anna-Marie McLemore, Tehlor Kay Mejia, Nnedi Okorafor, and Randy Ribay (among many others) has made YA fiction impossible for me to resist. Yet this past spring semester marked my first attempt at teaching middle-grades fiction to university students. The course I taught was called "Latinx Literature and Popular Culture," and it was an upper-level elective that satisfied the so-called "diversity" requirement in our major. When I first began to plan out the course, the decision to include Celia C. Pérez's The First Rule of Punk happened pretty early on. There were two initial reasons to assign it: First, it is a fantastic novel in its own right. Second, it would prepare my students to complete a zine project as a final assignment.
Yet I was not prepared for just how deeply this novel would resonate with my students. While these students were all roughly a decade older than the age range generally ascribed to books marketed as middle-grades texts, my university students kept returning to the narrative of Malú (the protagonist) over and over again as the semester progressed.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the text, rather than provide my own summary of it, I will instead include a brief excerpt from this excellent review by Lettycia Terrones. I think the description below provides a good feel for the novel without any significant spoilers.
There is a scene half-way through Celia C. Pérez's brilliant middle-grades novel The First Rule of Punk that pulls so powerfully at the heartstrings of all those who have ever struggled with forming their identity as a minoritized person in the U.S. Having just wrapped up the first practice session of her newly formed punk band, The Co-Co's, Malú (María Luisa O'Neill-Morales), the novel’s protagonist, learns an important lesson about what it means to be "Mexican." It's a lesson that not only connects Malú to her cultural heritage in a way that is authentic, it also invites her to self-fashion an identity that encompasses all parts of her, especially her punk rock parts! The lesson comes at the hands of Mrs. Hidalgo, the mother of Joe (José Hidalgo) who is Malú's friend-in-punk, fellow seventh-grader at José Guadalupe Posada Middle School, and the guitarist of her band. And, it's a lesson that complements those imparted by the many teachers guiding Malú to incorporate the complexity of seemingly disparate parts that make up who she is.
Before leaving the Hidalgo basement, which serves as the band's practice space, Mrs. Hidalgo asks Malú to pull out a vinyl copy of Attitudes by The Brat. Putting needle to the record, Malú listens to the first bars of "Swift Moves," the EP's opening song, and asks in wonder, "Who is she?" To which Mrs. Hidalgo replies, "That’s Teresa Covarrubias." And, so begins a history lesson for the ages. By introducing Malú to Teresa Covarrubias, the legendary singer of The Brat—the best punk band ever to harken from East L.A.—Mrs. Hidaldo, in a true punk rock move, being that she's one herself, reclaims the cultural lineages that are so often erased and suppressed by dominant narratives, by affirming to Malú: "And they're Chicanos, Mexican Americans … like us" (162). Mrs. Hidalgo opens a door and illuminates for Malú something so beautiful and lucent about our culture. She designates this beauty as being uniquely part of a Chicanx experience and sensibility. So that in this moment, Malú's prior knowledge and understanding of the punk narrative expands to include her in it as a Mexican American girl. She, too, belongs to this lineage of Mexicanas and Chicanas that made their own rules, which as Malú will go on to learn, indeed is the first rule of punk (310).
Now, for those of you who know how much I love the film, Lemonade Mouth, you can easily see why this novel resonates with me. Malú manages to assemble a band of misfits to push back against an anti-punk school administration, which hits all of the right notes for me.
Rather than simply praise the novel, however, I want to reflect on the experience of teaching it at the university level. One of the conversations that emerged over the course of the semester as we returned to the text throughout the semester was the idea that complexity does not equal quality when it comes to storytelling. Nor does complexity have a monopoly on meaning-making in literature. Perhaps more than any other text in our course, The First Rule of Punk allowed students to understand how meaning gets made through the process of a reader negotiating with a text; indeed, that understanding motivated them to treat a middle-grades novel with the same interpretive seriousness that they bring to adult fiction.
While the so-called "simplicity" of the novel made it accessible to all of my students, it did not take long for them to start reading it for depth. For example, my students wanted to talk at length about how naming functions in the text—particularly as Malú negotiates her preferred name (Malú) and her legal one (María Luisa). The cultural and ethnic implications of those choices were immediately evident as the novel progressed, and those implications led to discussions about names and identity in society. Students talked at length about the assumptions that undergird our names and how that troubles our understanding of identity. This aspect of the novel was particularly meaningful to many of my LGBTQ+ students.
This was not the only example of the novel enriching our collective understanding of identity in the class. Some of my students highlighted the ways in which Malú's assumptions about musical genres mapped neatly onto her initial understandings of her own identity. Once my students recognized this, they were driven to engage in rather complex discussions about how identities are shaped by music (and vice versa). They noted that we all have public playlists, for example, that are meant for others to see—they speak to how we want to be identified, even if they do not truly represent the music we most enjoy (or identify with). Although the narrative in this text is relatively simple, it quickly led us toward much larger conversations. This conversation, in particular, also allowed me to geek out about how punk gets constructed as a white genre, and then to share some Alice Bag music videos.
Similar conversations took place as we engaged with related topics later in the novel. One example of this was a discussion about intragroup and intergroup oppression which emerged as we examined the social dynamics of Malú's relationship to her frenemy and rival, Selena. Another example took place when we analyzed the intergenerational assumptions and tensions present between Malú and her mother. That conversation, in particular, served as a helpful introduction to similar concerns as they emerged in later texts such as Halsey Street (by Naima Coster). I could also imagine The First Rule of Punk as a useful precursor to a novel like Dreaming in Cuban (by Cristina García) in another version of this course.
There was also a more practical benefit from assigning this text, which was to introduce my students to zines. While I often talk about and teach zines, I have learned that my students are often unfamiliar with the concept. I want them to experiment with multimodal writing in my classes—especially when that involves working with images and text—and I have found that Pérez's novel teaches students about zines (sometimes implicitly) with as much clarity as anything else I have given them. For this class, I taught Vicko Alvarez's Rosita Gets Scared alongside The First Rule of Punk, which foregrounded the importance of image-texts long before we started talking about the zine project for the class. Being of a generation that has grown up with memes and mixed-media communications, students were often eager to understand and create material, DIY-inspired versions of image-texts for my class.
And our conversations about zines and The First Rule of Punk were not limited to practical concerns about zine construction. Rather, we dove right into the cultural politics of zines, both historically and within Pérez's fictional storyworld. My students noticed early on that zines represented a hybrid form, and they were excited to talk about how zines spoke to Malú's own negotiation of a hybrid identity. The politics of these conversations became clear as we progressed through the novel, and the politics of zines as modes of resistance or identity formation were clear and accessible in the text. More importantly, perhaps, students understood the importance of zines to the often-hyphenated nature of Latinx identities, and were able to recognize the value of creating their own zines in a course on Latinx literature.
In fact, I tried to emphasize that value in my assignment description for the final project:
Zines have long been a way for marginalized communities to record their stories and organize; they also demonstrate the democratizing possibilities inherent in self-publishing. Following our in-class conversations about Vicko Alvarez, Celia C. Pérez, and the creators of Latinx comics, I will ask you to create your own zine—one that combines both textual analysis and visual representation. Specifically, you will create a zine that explores creative expression, image-based narratives, and critical response in order to reflect on a central question, issue, or theme from the course that interests you. This assignment will provide you with an opportunity to showcase your developing skills in visual literacy as well as your understanding of the texts and popular culture artifacts we have discussed this semester.
What I expect is clear at this point is that my university-level students got a lot out of reading The First Rule of Punk with me. And while this novel is exceptional in so many ways, it has also led me to wonder what other middle-grades books might work well in a university setting. This is certainly something that my colleagues who specialize in children's literature have already thought about in more depth than I have, but I am particularly interested in ways to include such texts in classes that are not primarily about children's literature as well.
To conclude, I want to offer one last insight that was specific to teaching The First Rule of Punk, which has to do with what the novel meant to the larger narrative of my course. Perhaps the biggest student takeaway from that text—especially when paired with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk on "The Danger of a Single Story"—was that stories like The First Rule of Punk can helpfully challenge our monolithic stereotypes about Latinx cultures and identities. Malú made it clear that negotiating monolithic expectations was difficult and painful, and her story established a precedent for our readings of other texts later in the semester. Being that one goal for the course was to foreground Afro-Latinx voices, our conversations about The First Rule of Punk made it clear that Latinx identities are not mutually exclusive from other racial and cultural identities. but also important to set up conversations later in the semester about Afro-Latinx identities. That this novel helped my students to realize early on that Latinx identities are more complex and fluid than they may have expected was, perhaps, its greatest contribution to the narrative of my course.