Bio: Torrey Maldonado, the author of the critically acclaimed Tight and Secret Saturdays, has taught in Brooklyn, New York, for twenty years, where he was born and raised. His books reflect his students’ and his experiences. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com. Follow him: @torreymaldonado #torreymaldonado
What Lane? is your third book with PYR. Can you tell us a little about your inspiration for it? An amazing Minnesotan educator hit bullseye with why I wrote What Lane? when she tweeted her reaction after reading it (hi Julie Kirchner.) She tweets, “Can’t help but think of ALL the kids I want to hand this off to, but first up, my 13-year old! I want him to reflect on how he sees lanes in his own life and those around him”. That is an inspiration of mine: write a universally relatable book showing middle school is a crossroads where kids realize there are different paths, choose who they’ll be, and it’s a joyride as they try on different identities and experience where roads lead. It’s also inspired me to get readers to live in the skin of a kid of color and see how racism puts us in different lanes.
Where does the title What Lane? come from?
“Stay in your lane.” We hear that said. Yet, I teach middle school and know students who remind me of the main character of What Lane? and don’t want to hear that—they want to have no lane. Also, when I hear “Stay in your lane”, I wonder, What Lane? Are all kids allowed to ride in the same lane? Are they tracked equally? Kids are our future so I’m really asking, Where are we heading as a society? This book helps kids and adults discuss that. I gave two students What Lane? ARCS—one Chinese-American and one white-American. The reading built such empathy and sensitivity in them for the main character that they separately told me they hate the antagonist, love the protagonist’s allies, and plan to be an ally to people in different lanes. That’s two kids from different neighborhoods, economic levels, and backgrounds who now are in the same lane for a common cause. So What Lane? is a title and also a hope that we question lanes, help each other along, and steer humankind to where we should be.
I’ve always thought of Tight as a modern day Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings. How do you see Tight as an important message for kids today? What would you like to see kids take away from your book?
“Tight” is slang for cool, great, etc. It’s the opposite too. In Tight, the boy has a tight bond with his mom. Money is tight in his family. He feels comics, superheroes, drawing, being drama-free is tight-great. He has a tight—sometimes helpful, sometimes stressful—relationship with his sister. He wants a tight friend, gets that, then more tightness unfolds. Tight shows similarities between all kids’ lives, families, and neighborhoods. The main character learns to flip situations from tight-stressful to tight-helpful in ways I hope readers learn. Also, fans say the antagonist is as complex as the term “tight” and I hope Tight gets kids seeing the complexities of real-world “friend-emies” and bullies like Mike and pinpoint them on a bully spectrum to better respond to these people.
As an early diverse book, ahead of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks curve Secret Saturdays deals with incarceration. Why do you think that’s a topic kids need to read about?
What Secret Saturdays keeps doing shocks me. It has a staying power and wide appeal I didn’t expect. It revolves around middle grade New York kids yet its readership stretches from lower to upper grades and across the U.S. A fifth grade librarian recently told me, “I can’t keep Secret Saturdays on my shelf”. It also received the ALA Quick Pick for Young Adults. Queens College assigned it as required-reading alongside The Outsiders. All of that might show kids still need to read and discuss certain topics, including incarcerated parents and its impact on every aspect of the child’s life. The topics are of both personal and societal importance to me. Having a dad in jail was my students’ and my experience and it messes with you. For my whole life then twenty years of teaching, school and books never gave me or my students the right book to help us healthily handle our parents’ incarceration and alchemize that into a drive to thrive. I wondered, How do I write that missing book? How can it be about this tough topic yet entertaining so kids feel the rush of what excites them outside of school and books? That’s partly how Secret Saturdays started and seeing its continued success shows it still centers what kids need to discuss.
As a school teacher, are you driven to write for kids due to your experience in the classroom? Can you elaborate on that?
“Walk It Like I Talk It.” The Migos raps that, which hints at why I teach and write for kids. Students tell me, “You’re into-into books. You read them AND write them”. That’s me “walking my talk”. I show my “cup runneth over” for literacy by showing I’m so excited by what some people read and write that I’m inspired to write. That prompts students to mimic me. Also, I’m a sum total of my experiences and can’t split myself as a educator from writer from my student experience. From lower school through high school, my student-experience was like many—I wasn’t exposed to books that hooked me. Books cast people like me as side-characters, caricaturized, criminalized, and demonized us. Or, we weren’t in the books and invisible. That disconnected me from books so hard that I was left back. Books weren’t valuable or tools to help me rise. So I follow the footsteps of the few great educators who exposed me to engaging culturally responsive reading and got me back on track. I write to hook kids to books, help them see themselves as main-characters, heroic, human, and valued.
What guidance can you offer to educators on how to use your books in the classroom?
I love books ending on cliffhangers because they make us want the next book, which is my goal as a teacher-author—keep kids reading. So my books end on cliffhangers so abrupt that readers are abrupt with me. “You need to write a sequel’ educators and kids tell me. Educators ask me to write another chapter to each book because students ask, “What happens next?”. I applaud educators wanting to make life easier for kids. However, my book-endings are chances to mine kids’ imaginations. So, educators ought to ask students, “What do you imagine happens next?” If student write scenes that unfold the final conversations and dynamics then educators cultivate a new generation of writers.
How are your books useful to educators working with reluctant readers?
I’m grateful that Secret Saturdays and Tight each got the ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Educators can capitalize on how my books hook both reluctant and avid readers by using both books as follows. Secret Saturdays pairs nicely with poetry-units and April’s Poetry Month as both main characters keep private freestyle rhyme-Rap books and pen unspoken feelings and thoughts. Educators can have kids write raps about issues influencing their growth. With Tight, educators can riff off of the superhero theme and ask kids to self-examine and describe themselves as real-life superheroes with realistic powers they have or share with Bryan—wise decision-making, resilience, etc. This pairs nicely with drawing too. Educators say they can’t wait for What Lane? in April because they’ll have kids examine their privilege and reflect on how they can be better allies when they see things that aren’t right. I envision illustrations with lanes showing where society steers people. Kids can question and explain how we may reroute certain trajectories.
What advice would you offer to aspiring student writers?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he says that expertise requires at least ten thousand hours of practice. In a world where so many writers try to keep up with each other, you stand out if own who you are. Add Gladwell’s finding to owning who you are and it equals my advice to aspiring student writers—you’re an expert at being you because you’ve spent at least ten thousand hours in your body so own who you are and write your experiences—the truth people don’t know. Let your inimitable truth pour onto the page and you’ll get writing that no one can imitate. I wrote Secret Saturdays, Tight, and What Lane? from “my truth” from as honest a place as I could. That truth combined with the lives of my students has helped kids and families meet the unchanging challenges of growing up anywhere and to navigate complex situations.