Weathering the Bully Spectrum: An Interview with Torrey Maldonado of Tight
Years ago I was at a house party in Brooklyn for a lovely writer friend. It was the kind of event where you could find a writer tucked away in every pantry, cupboard, and spare room. Lots of writers, is what I’m saying. Anyway, I’m not the world’s greatest mingler when it comes to people I don’t know, but there was this one guy who was just the most personable, easy to talk to fellow. Turned out he was a teacher, which made perfect sense. Who better to put awkward people at ease? Of course he was a writer as well, and had not too long ago published the book Secret Saturdays with Puffin Books. His name was Torrey Maldonado and there was just something about the guy that stayed memorable. Over the years I’ve forgotten the names of scads of people, even the ones I’ve had meals with, but him I remembered.
Now Torrey has a new book out. The kind that gets blurbs from people like Jacqueline Woodson and G. Neri. The kind that gets starred reviews in School Library Journal. Tight follows Bryan, a kid that has a hard time making friends, and who’s doing his best to stay out of trouble. When he befriends a boy named Mike, the two click. They’re good together. But Mike’s got something inside that’s eating him. As his behavior gets more and more extreme, Bryan has to figure out whether this friendship is worth the abuse that comes along for the ride.
I got a chance, after all these years again, to talk to Torrey about the book.
Betsy Bird: The easiest middle grade book to write is the kind with the stereotypical physical bully. The one who steals your lunch money and shoves you in your locker has been done to death. Far more interesting and malevolent is the bully who’s a friend with great qualities that you really like. How did you go about constructing the character of Mike?
Torrey Maldonado: There’s this saying, “Behind every kid acting out is a story that’ll make you cry”. As I saw the movie Black Panther I reacted to the antagonist—Kilmonger—the way you and other readers react to Mike. People find Mike is likable, interesting, and has great qualities. In that way, Mike mirrors Kilmonger and the “friend-emies” and bullies of my students’ and my life. He doesn’t steal your money; he steals your heart. I hope that through Tight my students and other kids build a similar empathy that you have for Mike. A fairly unknown playwright named William Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. I want readers to ask themselves, “Is Mike good or bad?” I hope they walk away trying to pinpoint Mike on the bully spectrum and his underlying issues. If they do, maybe it will help them understand and interact with real-world Mikes better.
Now sometimes I’ll read a book set in New York and it won’t feel like the city. Yours doesn’t have that problem. It’s timely and accurate, which is great. There’s this one moment too when the characters are meeting in a Starbucks and Bryan’s really loving it. This was written before the real world Starbucks incident when two black men were arrested while waiting for a friend. Did you have any thought when it occurred of how this could affect the reading of your passage?
In my Brooklyn hometown where I was born and raised and in lots of neighborhoods, urban Black/Brown bookish boys were and are bullied and get called the “g” word for our bookishness. Not g for “genius” or g for “gangster”. When I author-visit across the U.S., I ask audiences, “What do kids call boys to make them stop reading or from doing anything positive?” The response always is unanimous: “Gay”. Unfortunately, our world can be homophobic where many boys don’t want to be seen as gay. Each year, kids feminize and interrupt our bookishness and it happened to me my whole life. I wish more urban Black/Brown males were allowed to be bookish. I dream that we can have more safe spaces for that. I don’t see many book characters that are bookish urban Black/Brown boys that my urban students see as cool. So my casting two urban Black/Brown boys that my students feel are cool as bookish in Starbucks is my yearning to fill a void in the real world and our book market. Also, my scenes cast a vision of Starbucks’ potential. I believe my Starbucks scenes can help start dialogues about race, Black/Brown males and safe spaces, who is allowed to be bookish, and “Have Nots” experiencing access and privilege and peace. I hope the Starbucks folks make life imitate my art because it would be great if males like me from tweens to adults can get the same Starbucks experience fully offered to others.
BB: One of my pet peeves when I read kids’ books is when the author feels obligated to make up fake superheroes or video games in the text. I guess they do it so that the book won’t date in some way, but it just drives me up the wall. One thing I really liked about the book is that you mention real superheroes in the here and the now. Are you a superhero fan yourself? Why did you make that the way the guys bond?
TM: Am I a superhero fan? Just you asking had a Pavlovian effect on me and I nearly flashed the Wakanda Forever gesture from Black Panther. Just like the boys of Tight, I follow and want to be our favorite heroes in comic-to-films, CW, Netflix, FX, and more. You also asked why my characters bond over comics and superheroes. I aim to spotlight a timeless trend that I lived that is a growing trend. The trend is superhero worship. As long as I have taught, kids visit my classroom at lunch and bond over superheroes the way my characters do. Time with students and my lifetime of superhero worship revealed a trend in a trend: the toxic masculinity modeled by superheroes. Many are stereotypes of manliness. Tight is a mirror for my students because of superhero worship. And through Tight we see a need for more 21st century complex male heroes. My students are multidimensional and heroic in many ways. So with Tight I tried to show a tween today with a complexity of character wanting a superpower and finding real ways to be super. I hope my students and other kids walk away from Tight knowing how they are heroic and can keep that going.
TM: The Stanford University Graduate School for Education asked me to do an author-visit and I read Tight. I still have raised forearm-hairs from my visit. I’ve had middle schoolers before ask me to sign their sneakers. Yet after reading Tight, a first happened. Kids asked me to sign cellphones, hats, and shirts. A librarian from another school sent me an email with kid feedback about Tight. She said she listened to the audiobook’s first chapter with her son who ONLY likes graphic novels. He said, “This should be a graphic novel!” My secret-wish as a fifth grader was to someday write something as good as a graphic novel so the librarian’s son compliment is a dream come true. Now the Twitter feedback from librarians and educators is at a whole other level. I wish I could turn their tweets into coffee that powers me all mornings or turn their tweets into medals that I wear all the time. I hope Tight keeps making kids feel these ways too.
BB: Anything else in the works?
TM: I’m super thrilled to reveal that Nancy Paulsen and Penguin Kids and I will keep whipping up MG magic. In early 2020, they will release my book about a tween half Black and half White boy grappling with racial profiling in his community and figuring out how to navigate as a mixed boy in our world.
A ton of thanks to Torrey and the folks at Penguin for the chat. You can find Torrey’s book on my Alternative Anticipated Children’s Books of Fall 2018 List and wherever fine books are sold.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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