Torrey Maldonado is an author and educator. His first MG/YA novel, Secret Saturdays was a 2011 ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers selection. Torrey is also an advocate for literacy, education and young men of color. He recently agreed to the following interview and I think that you’ll be as amazed by his energy, optimism and hope in our collective future (i.e., our children) as I am.
First let’s start with a few questions to introduce you to my readers.
Where did you grow up?
“In New York!” (to quote Alicia Keys’ song) “The Concrete Jungle where dreams are made of!” My upbringing and path from poverty to being featured on NBC, CNN, and other media is more similar to Jay-Z though. Red Hook, Brooklyn is where I grew up and it’s an “other side of the tracks” place that is full of contradictions. On one hand, it’s the hard Brooklyn housing projects where my sister was the Day Care teacher of the NBA-star Carmelo Anthony. Life Magazine in 1988 called our neighborhood the “Crack Capital of the U.S.A.”. On the other hand, Red Hook “will make you feel brand new” (to quote Alicia Keys again) and it’s the tightknit, warm community where many “hipsters” and “artsy” types today visit, fall in love with, and set up shop. Red Hook’s contradictions, charm, and warmth have a hold on me and it’s why I thought I’d write the next Harry Potter or Twilight series but blinked and I produced a debut novel set in Red Hook about two Red Hook friends. I think Red Hook’s magic is what landed Secret Saturdays on states’ High and Middle School reading-lists and inspires Red Hook organizations and colleges to assign it next to classics such as The Outsiders and invite me to visit.
Do you have any pets?
I SO wish I had pets. I miss my cat, Snow White, from my childhood. Sure, she peed on and clawed to shreds my prized two-hundred plus-comic book collection! Urgh! But I still miss her because pets have a magic that I see makes people’s eyes light up more than when they see friends. So why don’t I have pets? My wife does this hacking cough, allergic thingy if she’s around animals for too long; so, I gave up pet-ownership for another love. Now, we have a toddler and she may be allergic to animal-hair. But every now and then, I get lucky and am invited to author-visit around the country and stay with pet-owners. Oh, I’m in “pet heaven” then (hi to Mr. & Mrs. Udell in Husdon! Hey to the Antony John family in St. Louis).
What do you enjoy watching on television?
I’m like the people who like my book—I like T.V., but only good T.V. I rarely get to watch T.V. because I’m a veteran public school teacher PLUS an author PLUS a father PLUS an active collaborator with a few organizations that help youth evolve into their best selves. The other night I got the rare chance to watch T.V. and I re-watched an international T.V. phenomenon—a first episode of “Heroes”. Sci-Fi, fantasy, and magic realism T.V. feeds my “T.V. sweet-tooth” because it was that non-reality programming that sweetened by childhood when the hardships of my neighborhood soured my reality. I also prefer T.V. or movies that have characters who look like the mix of our world. My T.V. and movie tastes color my writing. I wrote Secret Saturdays while constantly asking, “Would a young media-addicted ‘me’ read this?” In other words, would today’s Young Adults and Middle Schoolers say my book has “made for T.V. swag”? I still have a letter that a Bangladeshi mom wrote me. She said, “Thank you. My son is addicted to video games and T.V. For the past two days, he’s read your book and did none of those things.” I hope someone who makes movies sees the similar response on amazon.com from a Child and Adolescent psychologist. She starts her therapy groups by reading a chapter of my book to grandparents, parents/caregivers, teens, and tweens and everyone feels my book should be a movie. As for the multicultural aspect of my writing, both my family and my friendship-circles are proud because I’m on must-read Black, Latino, and multicultural book-lists.
Meat or vegetables?
Right now, you can’t see me but I’m licking my lips and eyeing Thanksgiving Turkey. However, if you could look inside my mind, you’d see a steel-cage wrestling match: the meat-eater I am now versus the vegetarian I was for nearly ten years. I come from a mixed—Black and Latino—upbringing, just like the half-Black and half-Puerto Rican two main characters of Secret Saturdays. The cultures of my family and neighbors during my childhood put meat in every meal. So Luke was able to resist “the force” that his Darth Vader dad was serving but, as much as I resisted, bacon tempted me back to the “meaty”-side of life. It’s a tasty world yet I’m reminded of a sixty-something year old vegetarian I recently met. How does he look forty years old with a muscular body like Duane “The Rock” Johnson? He says his secret is he doesn’t eat meat. He quit after the Vietnam War and has outlived his friends and family. So, today, I’m eating meat yet should I?
Are there any books that stand out in your memories of childhood?
I still time-travel back to a “happy early childhood place” whenever I see Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day. My mom would peel back those pages and I thought I was looking in the mirror—I thought that little brown, boy protagonist was me! Interestingly, I was invited to speak on Election Day on an award-winning, all-male panel in the recent New York City Librarian conference. Our session was entitled, “Engaging Boys in Reading” and the first man on the “mic” began by saying his favorite childhood book was A Snowy Day! Wow! To quote Roberta Flack or Lauryn Hill, he was “telling my whole life with his words”. Is it a coincidence that we share the same childhood, favorite book? I think the answer is in the weekend before that panel. The weekend before, I was invited to speak at the YALSA Symposium in St. Louis on a panel called “Guys Talkin’ to Guys: What Will Guys Read Next?” Ours was a different all-male, diverse panel yet there were so many uncanny coincidences! Most of the guys said they were drawn to similar books that I loved as a boy, tween, and teen. Us loving the same books and types of books as children influenced another coincidence—we now write those kinds of books (books where fictional characters and dialogue feel real, comics and graphic novels, books that are cool for guys to be seen carrying, thinner books, and books with chapters as long as the attention-spans of today’s Young Adult and Middle School females and males).
What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?
I might be revealing that I’m a “history geek” with this answer. I bought and, so far, am enjoying every moment I steal to read the just-released graphic novel The Hammer and The Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America. As a teacher and author, I’m more in the middle of two places. First, I’m in the middle of reading books that I use in my classes. At the same time, I’m wrapping up writing a book that I’m told Young Adults and Middle School students will devour in under a day. I just wish I could finish writing it in under a day.
You’re an educator! What subjects and ages do you most enjoy teaching? Why?
I’ve taught for sixteen years in two capacities and see a strong connection between both fields. For three years, I was a Conflict Resolution Trainer and Staff Developer for the U.S.’s largest victim-services agency and taught schools to set up and run Conflict Resolution programs. There, I taught adults as well as classes from fifth grade through twelfth graders. Then, I became a sixth grade Social Studies (History) and have loved it for the past thirteen years. The connection between my Conflict Resolution and my veteran teaching careers is what most teachers do: develop students’ character. That’s what I aim to do with my novel and I love one librarian’s review of me in her “Library Lounge Lizard” blog because she “gets” a part of why I teach and write! She says: “I really loved this book and I will be encouraging teachers and librarians everywhere to read it and keep it in their classrooms and libraries. The situation of [middle school] boys insecure about communicating their feelings with other boys without seeming ‘gay’ is practically epidemic and compounding that with the fact they sometimes live without positive male role models is a recipe for disaster.” In Secret Saturdays, I show how kids are losing a language of their youthful honesty and trading their innocence for a new language of “fronting” and being mean and bullying and, for many, this is a fall into an abyss of non-stop ugliness as they falling into lower and lower rungs of meanness. As a teacher and author, I enjoy being in the “tween and teen crossroads” to help kids sidestep the “abyss of the dis” and stay multidimensional and kindhearted as they walk into young adulthood. I saw the Common Core Learning Standards on the horizon so designed Secret Saturdays in alignment with them so schools see the added-value in my book. The heart of the Common Core is get students to listen like judges, think and read like detectives, and write like investigative journalists and Justin grows to excel in all three tasks by the book’s conclusion. You’ll also find Core-based materials I designed on my site—lessons for major subjects, a Discussion Guide, test, and more.
What books do you recommend most often to your students?
It depends on the student. I always follow this rule: the best salesperson is your peer. A kid doesn’t want to hear my love for Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love (although she’s amazing because she does for women in that book what I do for males in Secret Saturdays and Nelson Mandela quoted her in his inaugural speech and Oprah loves her). Do I think my male and female students should read A Return to Love? Yes, but they don’t want to read that. Young people want to wear the Michael Jordan sneakers that their friends wear and, similarly, they want to read what is popular with their peers. So, when I figure out what issue a student is struggling with I assign a matching fan-favorite book almost the way a doctor prescribes the right medicine. Basically, it’s always the same equation: a student has an issue, kids elsewhere recommend a book that addresses that issue, and I relay that book into the right hands.
In an interview about Secret Saturdays you talk about all the missing men in young people’s lives and in the lives of families. I think men are also missing in the voice of teen/pre-teen books, particularly those of men of color. What difference do you think it would make to have more Black, Latino, Asian and Native American men writing for teens?
Youth—especially young males—have gone so long without soaking up images of themselves in books or as authors that they’re dry sponges and will sponge-up anyone who remotely looks like them. I participated in the upstate, NY, Hudson Children’s Book Festival and a Filipino boy spotted me and yelled, “YOU’RE FILIPINO, RIGHT?” I didn’t have the heart to crush him and say “No”. A one-hundred-and-eighty degree shift in this area would trigger massive, positive change for boys on many levels, especially in the explosion of boys who become men-of-color authors—like I did. In the 1990s, my mom opened a New York Daily newspaper and showed me a Dominican Republican-American debut author who looks a bit like me. His name was Junot Diaz. I took that article and he represented my missing voice so much that I cut out and taped the article on my wall. Then, again in the 1990s, my mom said a bestselling African-American author named James McBride—the writer of The Color of Water which is set in my hometown—would speak at our local Red Hook library. I went and he autographed his book I bought with “To a fellow scribe (author)”. Both Diaz and McBride don’t make up my exact racial make-up yet they fired me up so much that it ignited me to skyrocket into joining them as a professional writer. I can’t count how many White, Mexican-American, Asian, Native American, and more tweens and teens tell me I inspire them how these authors inspired me.
Do you think you’ll always teach?
Yes. And write.
You mention quite often that you’ve always wanted to be a writer. Looking back, what were some of the things you did, whether intentional or not, that helped prepare you to become a professional writer?
Remember in The Matrix how Morpheus kept waiting for Neo to be ready? Neo’s whole life prepared him but he needed a push? My whole life prepared me for the road I’m on but my mom almost slipping into a diabetic coma helped push me to become the professional-writer that she kept waiting for me to be. Since I was in elementary school, I heard my mom brag that “My son’s going to write books someday.” The possibility that she might die without seeing me fulfill her dream lit a fire in me that propelled me to write Secret Saturdays. That’s why my book is dedicated to my mom. That’s also backstory into how I got my start. I think jobs I’ve had help keep me successful. In high school, I had a few sales-jobs and, in one, I sold socks and ties to subway train-passengers. The rule then was the rule now for most debut authors: “sell or sink”. When I debuted, I was told “You’re responsible for setting up your author-visits and promoting your book.” Having learned as a teen how to engage a person and establish responsiveness helps me as a professional writer. Teaching has prepared me to engage large-groups and also know if I’m “hit” with an audience; so, I group-talk and write with a sense of what will “move” or “lose” an audience.
I read Secret Saturdays quite a while ago! In fact, I think I read it as an ARC. I’m sure that in all that time, you’ve re-visited that story a lot as you discussed and introduced it to new readers. What are some of the storylines you might continue to develop in a sequel?
The publishing game is supply-and-demand. I have a “hit” with readers and we’ll see if get a sequel. One librarian made a bulletin board that said, “The 25 Most ‘Checked Out’ Books from Our Library” and my book was number one. Secret Saturdays was more popular than a lot of books-to-movies! Wow. The other day, a girl asked, “When are you done with the second book? I’m halfway through this one and I can’t wait to close it and open up the next.” Also, when I author-visit ten out of ten times readers, teachers, librarians, and administrators ask, “When is book two coming out?” They even have titles! LOL! Secret Sundays! Manic Mondays! If enough readers demand the book, Penguin will tell me to supply it and I’d love to get the chance to do what readers want: play out want what happens at the end between Justin and Sean; show their friendship change as new teen dramas crop up; see what happens with Sean and Vanessa (bom chicka wow wow); and guess who’s dads re-appear and bring a lot of action and craziness to the mix. . . . As I cross-fingers and wait to be asked to write a sequel, I’m writing another book with other storylines.
Thanks, Torrey! It was a pleasure getting to know you. I hope Penguin will soon realize how much demand there is for a sequel to Secret Saturdays, as well as other stories you have to write!
Torrey’s bio: Voted a “2012 Top 10 Author”, NBC & more have spotlighted Maldonado & his “hit” ALA Quick Pick novel, Secret Saturdays. Born & raised in Red Hook projects, he overcame neighborhood poverty & violence to be the first immediate family member to attend college. Graduating Vassar, he trained schools to implement Conflict Resolution programs through the U.S.’s largest victim-services agency. He holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Baruch College. A veteran teacher, his cross-cataloged—Young Adult and Middle Grade—novel is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes, made states’ Middle & High school reading-lists, & is assigned alongside classics in colleges. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com