Torrey Maldonado, TIGHT

Torrey Maldonado, TIGHT

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Torrey Maldonado who’s a middle school teacher and the author of Tight and Secret Saturdays. He was voted a top-ten Latino author and best middle-grade and young-adult novelist for African Americans. His book Secret Saturdays was highlighted in The New York Times as a top book by and about Latinos. He currently lives and teaches in Brooklyn where he born and raised.

Welcome, Torrey. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Torrey Maldonado: Thank you for having me here.

Zibby: I have to say, Torrey and I were just commiserating because I spent the day chaperoning a field trip. He spent the day as a teacher taking his kids on a field trip. It’s the end of the day. We are going to try to pump up our energy for this podcast.

Torrey: Totally. I felt like a domino standing and teetering and almost about to fall at the end of the day.

Zibby: I know. I laid on the carpet in the living room. I can’t even get up.

Torrey: The kids know too. One of my sixth graders came up to me and said, “How are you still standing?”

Zibby: It’s so funny. I don’t know why. All we did was pick pumpkins. Just exhausting managing all those kids. I just finished reading your book Tight which was so good. I thought I was going to read it with my kids, but I ended up just reading it myself. I didn’t want to wait for them. I read them the first chapter, which they liked. Then I was, no, I’m not waiting. It was great. I’m excited to talk to you about it. Tell us what Tight is about. What inspired you to write it?

Torrey: Awesome. I’ve been teaching for about twenty years. I constantly hear slang that I say, yeah, that really describes the experience. One of the slang words that I hear kids use — adults use it too — is tight. I feel that word’s perfect to describe adolescence. Sometimes tweendom is tight. Tight means a lot of things too. My students will look at each other’s footwear and say, “Oh, you’ve got those kicks. Those are tight.” You hear the converse. You hear people say, “Get away from me. You’re making me tight.”

Zibby: I thought you were going to say maybe the opposite was loose. I’m kidding.

Torrey: Loose, that’ll be the next book. They’re like, “This dude, he just went from tight to loose.” The boy Bryan who’s a sixth grader, he loves comics. He thinks comics are tight. Things you’re drawing are tight. He has a tight relationship with his mom. He experiences other types of tightness. He has a sibling, a sister. Sometimes sisters could be awesome. Sometimes brothers could be awesome. Sometimes brothers could be big bothers. Sometimes she gets him tight and angry. Siblings could relate to that. Also, sometimes money in his family is tight. He really wants to have a tight friendship. That’s the one piece that’s missing. We read and we embark on this journey where he becomes tight with another boy. Then we learn that everything that glitters isn’t gold. Even though the boy is an honor roll student and he has adults thinking that he’s a pretty tight, awesome kid — he is. However, he pushes Bryan into tight situations where Bryan has to figure out what to do that’s right to make it tight-good.

Zibby: One of the things that was best about this book was talking about how hard it is to know how to handle a situation that feels out of your control. Bryan feels peer-pressured to do some things that he’s not sure — he knows they’re not right, but he feels like he should do them anyway. You give readers and Bryan the outlet to say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” or think about how to do it or how to handle it. It’s great. What do you do in those situations? Every kid, and I’m sure all of us at some point or another, have been in that situation.

Torrey: I get to meet lots of different adult groups and also student groups who know the book. One of the things that I ask is, “How many of you have been peer-pressured? How many of you have done a dare? How many of you have been in a situation that you know is tight and not right, but you stayed in that situation?” Ninety percent of the honest adults raise their hands. A hundred percent of the kids raise their hands. Peer pressure is this perennial issue that we all go through. The teacher in me wanted to write a book that gave kids a model of, “If I’m ever in this tight situation, here are some other options.”

One of the things that I would like to say is I also ask any adult group that I meet and any youth group that I meet, “Raise your hand if you wish you had a superpower.” Everyone raises their hands. One principal said, “I want to be the Flash because I can get all my work done, get all my stuff in my in-basket and my out-basket.” That’s the power that I wish that I had too so I write all the stories that I have in me. We notice that in the book, Bryan, he admires certain heroes. He wants to be Batman because Batman uses his head and thinks ten steps ahead. He wants to be Black Panther because he’s a thinker. That’s one way to respond to peer pressure, think it through, think about different choices. We notice his friend that he becomes tight with has a different way of reacting to situations. He tells him, “You don’t want to be Batman. You don’t want to be T’Challa. You want to be Luke Cage,” this brawny, muscle-y, unbreakable guy who solves things with his fists, mainly.

Zibby: I feel like there was this theme in the book of not wanting to be soft. It kept coming up, like, “You’re soft.” The dad doesn’t want his kid to be soft. Tell me a little more about that. Does that come up a lot? Is that a big thing with the students? Is that just the big fear of every tween boy as he’s getting older?

Torrey: Frankie Valli in the 1940s had that song, “Walk Like a Man,” talk like a man.

Zibby: Walk like a man.

Torrey: If I had a nice voice like you, I’d probably sing it too. Also, sometimes I do sing songs. I’ve had students tell me, “Mr. T…”

Zibby: I will not sing.

Torrey: I used to sing along to that song. My dad sung it. My mom sung it. I didn’t question the narrative of toxic masculinity in that song. I just, like a sponge, absorbed it. As I got older as a boy, I heard people tell me, “Man up.” I remember going home once. I wanted to impress my father. My father, he looked so dignified when he read. I thought, he’s going to walk through the door. He’s going to find me in our living room. I’m going to hold the newspaper. I was so small that the newspaper was bigger than me. I probably was holding it upside down. I thought, wow, he’s going to be really impressed.

When he walked through the door, he saw me reading. He snatches the paper. He says, “You should be outside playing football. You should be outside running with the boys.” Early on, many boys left of me and right of me, I was being told there was one way to be a man. That included being hard. That meant not being soft. I see it inside school. I’ve been teaching for twenty years. I’ve had girls say, “That’s soft.” I’ve had males say, “You don’t want to do that. That’s soft.” I always say that one of the quickest ways to turn a boy away from doing something that could promote his growth and promote societal growth is to call that thing soft. “Why you reading for? That’s soft.” I explore softness and hardness inside Tight. The boy, he quietly interrogates this one-sided masculinity of the superheroes that we see in comics and in film.

Zibby: Love it. You also address how to deal when your home life is chaotic and unpredictable which many people face in one way or another, not necessarily the way that Bryan’s family was with his father in and out of prison and all the rest. He has this one really lovely peaceful evening with his family. You write, “Everything is chill, and there’s not an ounce of drama. I love it. I look out my window and realize something. I helped make this moment chill by what I chose. I think that over and over, and I like that.” Tell me a little bit more about that.

Torrey: I’ll never forget when the ARC, the advanced reader copy, of Tight came out. I was in Penguin Random House. My editor Nancy Paulsen, she holds up the book. She always has a way of taking her finger and putting it right onto my heart and saying things that are really heartfelt. This is the first time I’m looking at the galley and at the ARC. She holds it up. She looks at me. She says, “This is you, isn’t it?” I thought, yes. The book is largely autobiographical. When I was growing up, my mom, she was my North Star. She still is. One of the things that she loved to do was read and write. People ask me, “Who’s your favorite writer?” I always say my favorite writer is my mom. She used to write in these spiral notebooks. Then she would call me over and say, “Read this.” Those moments were so chill. They were so peaceful. They were so drama-free. She would ask, “What do you think about what I wrote?”

Tupac has this lyric, this line where he says, “And suddenly, the ghetto didn’t seem so rough. Even though we had it tough, we had enough.” It felt like the reading, the writing, those chill moments gave me the intangibles that I needed to survive very tangible roughness. She used to take these books right after sharing them with me and put them in a file cabinet or stuff them in a drawer. She didn’t share her writing with anybody else. As I got older, I started to do something that — I’ll often tell people, kids will often be what they see. I started to emulate my mom. I started to imitate my mom. There are pictures of me at football fields or handball courts, in different places. I have a book out and I’m writing. It was this way of infusing this chillness into the moment. It was very meditative, very contemplative, very reflective. I became addicted to it, so much that I had seeped up and absorbed so much of my mom’s love of literacy that three books through Penguin Random House have overflowed out of me.

Zibby: I hope I can do that to my kids.

Torrey: It rubs off.

Zibby: Penguin Random House, if you’re listening. I’ve got four kids. Wait a few years.

Torrey: We often say to kids, “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are. Friends rub off on you.” Family rubs off on us too. My mom, she did that. She rubbed off on me. That’s why you get these amazing warm scenes in Tight where the boy is just reading comics with the other boy, and it’s chill. They’re just drawing next to each other, and it’s chill. The mom takes the boy from their housing projects over to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. They have this chill moment. The boy says in the book, “This is a moment,” like you just read, “This is one I helped create.” When he’s at the Promenade he says, “This is a moment that I wish I could take back to my neighborhood and make that feeling stay.” I think all kids wants that exhale. They want that sense of chill. You can’t be, “Ahh!” and hyped all the time.

Zibby: Reading, it’s escape no matter where you go, what you do. Anything you’re dealing with, you just go right into it.

Torrey: And writing is an escape too.

Zibby: And writing. Reading and writing.

Torrey: People ask me, what does writing mean to me? I so often tell them I feel like I’m Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption and how he chipped his way out. I don’t think it’s an accident that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a song called “Wrote My Way Out.” Writing is a pathway out of frustration, out of other issues, out of entrapments.

Zibby: You must teach this to all your students. I can see myself in your classroom. This must be what you do. It’s so powerful to hear it from you who’s had success writing.

Torrey: There’s a saying that my mom — I joke because I call my mom a Puerto Rican Yoda. Yoda would always say these cryptic riddles. There was a real power and a real meaning in everything he said. My mom, she used to say these quotes. I thought that they were her quotes. Then I would find out in school they weren’t her quotes. I’d run back to her and be like, “Ma!” She used to say, “People will remember how they feel about you, not what you said.” I was like, that’s true. Like Bryan with his mom in Tight would take him away, my mom would take me to the Promenade to Brooklyn Heights for author visits. She would take me to Carroll Gardens. She would take me to different parts of Brooklyn, sometimes into Manhattan.

At the end of every author visit she would ask me, “How did you feel about the speaker?” not what I thought about the person. How did I feel? If I said I was feeling the person, she knew it was good. It was good visit. If I said I wasn’t feeling the person — I remember the feelings that I got from being with these people. That goes into my teaching too because it can’t be all information dumps. Book sometimes can be heavy. I grew up — for a while, I was a reluctant reader. It was because of a lot of reasons, including the books were so informational and not sensational. They weren’t fun. I feel as if teaching needs to be like my books. I want kids at the end of the class to say, “How come we can’t have you for another period?” That’s one of my measures of success. That’s what happens all the time with my students. “Mr. T, you’re my favorite teacher, but don’t tell the other teachers.”

Zibby: Another concrete piece of advice I took out of your book was to deescalate any sort of conflict situation, to just say, “My bad,” and walk away. I actually did that today.

Torrey: High-five! What’s up?

Zibby: I did. I could go either way. Instead I was like, I’m just going to say “My bad” and see how it works. Works great!

Torrey: It does. It works great.

Zibby: Thank you for that.

Torrey: Thank you. This one, we have to thank Nancy Paulsen, my editor, for that. Even though I grew up saying “My bad,” and even though I say “My bad” when someone bumps into me or someone consciously or unconsciously transgresses, she’s the one who said, “You know how people use ‘My bad’? We might want to use this in Tight.” I have to tip my hat to her. She hooked that up.

Zibby: I’ll tip my hat to her too. When and where do you like to write? Tell me a little bit about your process.

Torrey: There’s this hip-hop song. The hip-hop song has this loop. It’s got to be funky. Then there’s Janet Jackson. She has that iconic sound blast where she’s like, “Give me a beat!” I had a very well-known writer turn her head and look at me in shock at my answer. She asked me, “Where do you write?” I said, “I could write anywhere. I could write right here. I could write over there. I could write anywhere.” She said, “Really? You don’t have a place that you do it?” For me, it’s not an outer space. It’s inner space. As long as I have instrumental music, I can write anywhere. I’ve been doing this for years. It has to be instrumental music. If it has words in it, then the words interfere with what I feel the character’s trying to say. Then I actually end up writing those words.

You know what this scene needs? This scene needs to be slowed down. Let me find some slow instrumental music. Then I would write to that. This scene has to feel like you are on a rollercoaster. I had to find something that was thumping and hard-hitting and fast-paced for that. It wasn’t until maybe about five years ago that I saw a video. It was on TV. It was one of those MTV quick info sessions. A person came on and said top universities and colleges have been studying this for a while, that when you listen to music it changes the biochemistry of your body and of your brain. You’ve got to be careful because if you listen to a slow song of a breakup, you’re actually releasing the chemicals and you’re reliving that memory and that experience. If you are listening to a song that hypes you up, you are feeling those hype sensations. It was like Roberta Flack. It was a Roberta Flack moment. “Singing my life with your words,” it gave words to what I was doing all along using music to change how I feel so that I could change the feeling of the reading and the writing.

Zibby: So cool. Headphones?

Torrey: Mm-hmm.

Zibby: Always headphones, not just you put it on a speaker?

Torrey: Yeah, because I don’t want to offend anybody else.

Zibby: That’s true, obviously if you’re in a public place.

Torrey: Just some headphones. It could be anything.

Zibby: I feel like you should put the playlist that you listen to when you write in the book at the end. Maybe people could put it on while they’re reading.

Torrey: It’s so cool that you said that because my first book has that playlist. Secret Saturdays, in the back, has a playlist.

Zibby: Really? I’m sorry. I didn’t read Secret Saturdays. I read Tight. This is why I should’ve read both, but moms don’t have time to read books.

Torrey: That’s on me too. Secret Saturdays was my first book. Speaking of music, there’s this amazing soundtrack, Spider-Verse. In Spider-Verse, the Spider-Man movie, Miles Morales is in that. In Tight, the boy talks about Miles Morales. Mile Morales is a big thing inside Tight. There’s this track. It says, “I got to go hard. I got to elevate.” My first book, I went really hard. My first book, I wrote a discussion guide that’s in the back. I put the playlist in the back. I created Common Core lessons for all four major subjects, put them up on my website. I created a conflict resolution lesson. I created a quiz. I did all of this stuff.

Zibby: I did see that on your website.

Torrey: Then when it came to Tight, I didn’t do any of that. That’s why you didn’t see the playlist in Tight.

Zibby: What about your next book? I got a sneak peek of your next book, which looks amazing. What can you say about that publicly? What’s it about and all that good stuff?

Torrey: I’m really excited. I’m mixed. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a book that I felt was fun but also gave me tools to —

Zibby: — You mean mixed race.

Torrey: Yeah, mixed race. I didn’t get tools to figure out how to navigate in a world that sees color. As I got older, I read adult books. I was like, oh, my god, this book is amazing. I know that my middle school students wouldn’t feel it. I challenged myself to write a high-paced, fun book that left kids seeing where people are divided and having a desire to heal those divides and bring people together. What Lane? Kids are being told, “Stay in your lane.” We even get told, “Stay in your lane.” The book’s called What Lane? What lane is this mixed boy supposed to stay in?

Zibby: It’s coming out May 2020.

Torrey: It’s coming out on Cinco de Mayo, May 5th. I can’t wait. I’m so excited about it.

Zibby: Perfect. Big party you planned? You’ve got to do something.

Torrey: I know. I have friends who do launch parties. They do these big things. I’ve never done a launch party.

Zibby: You have to pair it with Cinco de Mayo now. Now you have to. People are going to be wanting to have a party anyway.

Torrey: Definitely. People are ready.

Zibby: You have to. They just need an excuse. That’s perfect.

Torrey: You’re right. The stars align.

Zibby: Stars align. Now you have to invite me. No, you don’t have to. I’m kidding.

Torrey: Yes, you are invited.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Torrey: Absolutely. I can hear my students say, “Mr. T, comic books, superheroes, you’re always talking about comic books and superheroes.” Superheroes are big. I often say, tell me which heroes you admire. It tells me a lot about who you are on the inside or who you aspire to be. I’m going to talk about writing advice that I feel is essential through a story about a superhero. I was writing Tight. I was experiencing writer’s block. I turned on the TV. I was watching Daredevil on Netflix in the second season, the very last episode, and the last twenty minutes. Karen Page, a reporter, is sitting at her desk. She’s staring at the screen. She doesn’t know what to write. Her boss walks in. Her boss says, “What are you doing here?” It’s the holidays. It’s the eve. “Aren’t you supposed to be home with family?” She said, “I don’t know what to write.” He says, “Writer’s block?” She says, “Yeah.” She gives him some ideas. He says, “That’s all garbage.” She’s says, “It’s the news. Those are facts.” He said, “The facts have been reported already. The news has been reported already, that news.” This is the piece of writing advice that blew my mind so hard that I took my cell phone and I went up to the TV and I recorded it as it was happening. I still have it on my cell phone. He says, “This is New York. In New York, New Yorkers think they’ve seen it all. They think they know it all. They think they’ve heard it all. You have to write what they haven’t seen, what they haven’t heard, and what they don’t know.” She says, “What is that?” He says, “The truth. Your truth. You can’t hold back any punches.”

Anytime I hit writer’s block, I would play that. The reason is I feel as a teacher, my job is to bring adults who don’t know the interiority of young people, the inner worlds of young people, bring them into the world of young people so we could bridge that divide. I’ve been writing the truth that young people have been experiencing, and I’ve seen them experience, for the twenty years I’ve been teaching. I also mix it in with my truth that I experience in my life. I’d like to say one more thing about that. This is also tied to writing advice. I’ll never forget that I was in the main office of my school once. There was a woman who doesn’t work there anymore. She overheard me talking to a student. Student came in, “Hey Mr. T, what’s good?” I said, “What’s good? How you?” That’s all I said. He something else. I said something else. Then he left. The lady said, “Mr. T, you talk like that to kids?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “He said, ‘What’s good?’ and you said, ‘What’s good?’ Then he said, ‘How you?’ and you said, ‘How you?’ It’s ‘How are you?’” She was correcting me. It hit me hard. Not only did she do it publicly so I felt defaced, but it hit me hard because it had me questioning, is there a right way to talk to young people?

Shakespeare has this saying, nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so. The question is, the way you’re speaking, is it a tool that is making a rapport easier? I once walked into a classroom and the teacher was reading a book. The kids were bored out of their mind. I said, “Can I read this book just for fun to the kids?” The kids were like, “Yeah Mr. T, read it.” The teacher’s like, “Read it.” I read it. I code switched. I peppered it. I seasoned it with the slang that the kids use. They said, “You have to write a book.” She told me too. She was like, “You have to write a book.” That was a major push towards me writing Secret Saturdays. Then I realized something. I’m not the only person who code switches. You as a mom, you probably talk to your kids one way, but you will talk to your really good friend for two decades a whole other way. You code switch. I remember watching Barack Obama’s inauguration. He saw Jay Z. He’s like, “Hey Jay, what’s up?” He saw Queen. He was like, “Queen, what’s good?” Then he got on the mic, and he sounded like the president.

Code switching is something that happens a lot in my books. Young people love it. My suggestion to a writer who is writing for young people is figure out, how do young people really speak? Mirror that language. What you’re going to do is you’re going to bring adult readers into the world of young people that they can’t understand without an urban dictionary. Also, you’re going to be letting young people feel refreshed that, “Ah, there’s something here for me. This book is in my language.” I get that a lot of times. Kids come up to me and they’re like, “Mister, this is how we speak.” It makes me feel really good because I didn’t see myself a lot growing up in books. It makes me feel good that young people see themselves in books and they feel that they matter and that they can be the center of a narrative.

Zibby: Then hopefully they’ll go on and write other books. It’s a whole thing.

Torrey: It happens, and it happened.

Zibby: We’re out of time. Thank you so much for sharing all your thoughts and your great advice and your really powerful experience and for coming on the show.

Torrey: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Of course.

Torrey Maldonado, TIGHT

By Maldonado, Torrey

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