Celia C. Pérez learned to pay attention to birds from her 12-year-old character, Cat Garcia.
She wasn’t that aware of the natural world as a kid, Pérez said.
But that changed when she began creating Cat, who is a budding ornithologist (bird expert) in Pérez’s new novel “Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers.”
“I notice birds a lot more now,” Pérez said. “I know more bird songs.”
She also learned more about the importance of protecting birds. In the early 1900s, millions of birds were killed every year in the United States so their feathers could be used to decorate women’s hats. Then two women — Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall — began to protest this practice. They helped create change. A law called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was passed to keep birds from being hunted for their feathers.
Those events happened more than 100 years ago — but in the book, one of those fancy, feather hats is worn every year in a local pageant for girls.
Inspired by Hemenway and Hall, Cat and three friends decide to do something about that hat. As with Pérez’s popular first novel, “The First Rule of Punk,” they take action for a cause they believe in.
Close to home
Pérez drew upon her childhood neighborhood of Allapattah and the historic Coconut Grove, both in Miami, Florida, to fashion her fictional town of Sabal Palms. And she modeled her book’s wandering rooster and peacocks after birds she knew as a kid.
Of the four girl characters, “I was most like Ofelia Castillo as a kid,” said Pérez by phone from her home in Chicago, Illinois.
“I loved reading and writing,” she continued. “Like Ofelia, I wanted to be a journalist. But I didn’t think there was much worth writing about in my [home]town. It took leaving to realize how vivid and interesting it was.”
She’s also like Ofelia in two other ways, she said: She had overprotective parents and a Cuban American heritage.
Pérez studied library science in college and works at a community college library. This gives her something in common with her third character, Aster Douglas. Aster loves to spend time in the library with her grandfather, who is researching the history of old Florida. He’s trying to uncover a secret that has to do with Aster’s ancestors. They helped establish the town when they emigrated from the Bahamas.
The secret involves the wealthy family of the fourth friend, Lane DiSanti.
In trying to help her grandfather, Aster decides to spy on Lane’s grandmother in her beautiful, old mansion.
Inspired by friends
Pérez tells each girl’s story and involves each in the action with the other three characters.
“It was a big challenge, keeping their four stories straight,” said Pérez with a laugh.
She especially enjoyed depicting the way friends share interests and support one another. That recalled her own middle-school friendships and passion about “nerdy” things.
“Sometimes kids feel like they don’t fit in,” Pérez said. “But they might bond over feeling like outsiders and start their own groups.” That’s something she wanted to show in her novel.
Pérez doesn’t carefully plan a book in advance but often discovers the story as she writes it. Right now, she’s “scribbling ideas,” she said, and wondering what book might next emerge from her “piles of paper and [sticky] notes.”
And what she might learn from completely new characters.