Interview: Torrey Maldonado

Torrey Maldonado works to create opportunity for young people by teaching and writing. He currently teaches in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up. Knowing those young people and writing for them brings a real honesty and sense of purpose to Torrey’s writing. His latest book is Tight.

Tight is such an appropriate title for this book. Was that always the name you had for it?
Torrey: Thank you. At first, the book had no name. Somewhere while writing the manuscript, I Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 2.54.17 PM.pngscrolled to the cover-page and typed T-I-G-H-T, and it felt appropriate. So it’s cool that we both feel that too. During book-talks or author-visits, I ask audiences, “What’s the positive meaning of the slang word ‘tight’?” Every kid and adult knows: tight means “lit,” cool, great, etc. Then I ask, “What if someone or something gets you ‘tight’? What does ‘tight’ mean now?” Audiences say, “Angry, frustrated, upset”. The word is a window into Bryan—we see what’s good “tight” to him and also what gets him “tight”, upset. Money in his family is “tight”. Also, I wanted someone to say, “Your book is ‘tight’, meaning short and great. I saw a tweet from Jarret Lerner, the author of Enginerds, where he describes Tight that way. I’m “stanning” his tweet so hard that I saved it in my cell-camera. Here, I’ll read it now, Tight is “One of the most immersive, gripping, eye-opening, and powerfully REAL books I’ve read in some time. Torrey Maldonado packs a staggering amount into TIGHT’s 177 pages.” How tight is that?

What inspired this story?
Torrey: When I discuss Tight, it feels like I’m discussing a younger me. I was born and raised in Bryan’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Shoutout to the BK—“Brooooooklyn!” Like Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 3.01.41 PM.pnghim, I faced similar tough choices. I had cool and popular friends like Mike—“wolves in sheep’s clothing” who were low-key bullies—who don’t steal your lunch money but steal much more without you knowing you’re being robbed. The Roots rapper and Jimmy Fallon bandleader Black Thought highlights this everyday dynamic in the entertainment industry when he raps, “Stick-up kids are out to tax, and most of the time, they sticking you without the gats”. In all areas of life, we find Bryans and Mikes and that relationship. I was inspired to share that to help readers socially navigate. Okay, now how often will I say “complexity”? I hoped to show the complexity of character of both boys. I wanted to detail the complexities of the village that raised me. As a lifelong fan of superheroes, I aimed to shine light on the complexity of superhero worship. Tight references popular superheroes to explore how they help males be toxic in masculinity or heroic. 

One thing I really enjoyed about Tight was your ability to provide just enough information, to lead your reader to an idea and expect the reader to know what was going on. Mike was never a full on bully; Bryan thoughts didn’t get extremely intense about his situation, but we knew he was trying to figure things out. Was that intentional for this story?
Torrey: As a boy I was a reluctant reader. Young people who I have taught for nearly twenty years are like me: they enjoy what is light, fast, and electrifying. Bryan is a younger me in ways and we’re both fight-fans. In Tight he gets a rush from seeing UFC fights and boxing. Me too. Muhammad Ali gets credit for a technique used in both sports that I hoped to pull off in Tight. And, yes, writing is a sport too. In the second match between Ali and Sonny Liston, few people saw Ali’s Phantom Punch. It was subtle and did just enough to deliver a knockout. That’s what I tried with Tight—give just enough so it is light, fast, and fun. Sidenote: it won an ALA “Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers”. So others share our feeling that Tight is enjoyably “just enough”.

You made me want to go out and read a few comics! What comics, other than the ones in the book, would you suggest for readers who liked Tight?
Torrey: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a feature of Tight, saying moviegoers who sold out Marvel’s “Black Panther” at the box office and fans of Miles Morales in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse” should buy Tight. The feeling is mutual because Black Panther almost made me change my name to T’Chorrey M’BakuNado. As for “Spider-Man,” a friend emailed me and said, “Miles Morales is you!” He’s Bryan and me! I run the risk of staying home daily for forever in my superhero pajamas and seeing that movie on-loop. It is so good in how it doesn’t stereotype Black and Brown boys or our families and allies. It doesn’t stereotype manliness or encourage toxic masculinity. Also, its heroes and villains are multidimensional. And it’s good-tight.

One of the messages that is implied in the story is that adults really don’t know young people. What do you think teachers and librarians need to know about the Black and Brown boys in their schools?
Torrey: Our young people—including our Black and Brown boys—need to know how much we care before they care about how much we know. Also, kids often will be what they see so positive modeling and exposure matters. Life magazine called my hometown—the Red Hook projects—“The Crack Capital of the U.S.” and “One of Ten Worst Neighborhoods” in our U.S. I come from a traditionally disenfranchised, marginalized, and invisible place and I know the transformative power of both educators who care coupled with exposure to positive models and images. Those two things helped transform me from being a failing student who repeated the same grade nearly three times in a failing school into a novelist and teacher that NYC’s former and current Chancellor spotlighted as a top educator. If we use those two pieces of wisdom, we’ll help our young people—including our Black and Brown boys—stay on track to reach their dream lives.

If you were to write a sequel, would you continue with Mike or with Bryan?
Torrey: Every audience asks me that. I like to flip the question back and ask, “Who should the sequel be about?” The conversation always explodes into “Make the sequel about Bryan!” and “It’s should be about Mike!” and “No. Big Will!” and “Make it about Ava!” Everyone agrees on one thing: they want Tight to be a movie. If that happens, all of our wishes come true and we’ll see more of every character.

Boys with dad in prison: that is something you’ve written about before. We’re hearing more about how traumatic this is for families. How can books/stories provide relief for young people?
Torrey: I write books that a younger me needed. My dad was in-and-out of jail, as were too many of my family members. Books provide immeasurable relief and strengthening. My favorite was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. When I was maybe a bit taller than a fire hydrant, my mom cuddled me next to her in our projects’ apartment and read that. I Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 3.04.42 PM.pngthought the boy in The Snowy Day was me. I thought his was our projects. She’d read aloud and her eyes would smile like the book gave her what she needed. As she read it, the lyrics of Tupac in “Keep Ya Head Up” were true: “Suddenly the ghetto didn’t seem so tough. And though we had it rough, we always had enough”. Maybe it was then that the seed-question sprouted in my mind: What would happen if . . .? What would happen if I wrote books that made young readers feel relief and strength as they endured their loved ones being locked up? And what would happen if those young readers became writers who wrote to comfort and strengthen future generations?

What do you have currently in the works?
Torrey: I’m super thrilled to reveal that in 2020 Nancy Paulsen and Penguin Kids will release my next middle grade book What Lane? It’s about a half Black and half White tween boy grappling with racial profiling in his community and figuring out how to navigate as a mixed boy in our world.

Connect with Torrey on Twitter @TorreyMaldonado 

And, be sure to visit his website to get a preview of Tight.