Who, Where, When, Why, What Lane? Talking with Torrey Maldonado
But first, an ode to the interview process.
Interviewing a subject and moderating a discussion, these are two very similar endeavors. You want the focus to be squarely on the person being featured but, at the same time, you have to make it different from the 500 other interviews they’re being forced to conduct in the course of their book promotions. For my part, I always try to make mine just a hair different from the rest. That can be hard when the book is dull or I have nothing to say. And it can be incredibly easy when you’ve got a man like Torrey Maldonado chucking answers in your general direction. An honest-to-god middle school teacher, this is a guy who knows from whence he speaks.
Today Torrey and I sit down to talk about What Lane?, a book with three starred reviews and a finger firmly on the pulse of the nation right now.
Betsy Bird: Torrey, thank so much for having a chat with me today. So right off the bat the first thing that really struck me about WHAT LANE? was the fact that this is not your usual 200+ page tome of a book. It’s quick and thin and there’s not a drop of excess anywhere inside. Was that a purposeful move on your part? To write something middle schoolesque but with a short page count? And what do you see as the true advantages of books that do what yours does?
Torrey Maldonado: Your compliment is music to my ears—“This is not your usual tome of a book”. And your second compliment? “It’s quick and thin and there’s not a drop of excess anywhere”. Woah! Here’s partly why your compliments are HUGE. I rev my books to read faster and be thinner. Secret Saturdays was 195 pages, Tight dropped to 177, and What Lane? is so thin that I must share how a reluctant tween reader reacted to it. He describes himself as “allergic to books”, visits my classroom, flips What Lane? to the end, then nods. “A 126 pages? Say I won’t read it ALL tonight.” Let’s jumbotron the BIG win here: KID WHO HATED TO READ, READS A BOOK IN A NIGHT. I’ve taught middle school for over twenty years and we know how hard it is for families and educators to hook kids to books. So What Lane? is a “Little Thin Book That Could”. Could what? Hook as many to books.
BB: That’s right! You’re a middle school teacher but now you’re in the weird situation where all the schools in the country are closed. How are you handling it all? How are your students doing?
TM: Um-humm it IS a weird time. I feel as if I now Morse Code my lessons from an underground quarantined bunker. I video-teach, which raises a question. Do I only shave what students see of my head? Mr. Clean in the front? Blown-out fro in my back? I joke, yet maybe to cope with the weirdness of now. Jokes aside, for video-classes I still dress head-to-toe like I’m a teacher on Ellen about to be awarded a check. I do because it’s “Eww” for adults in PJs to talk with students. Lots of students enjoy video-time. Some toy with backgrounds behind them. A student made hers a calm tropical beach. Here’s the thing: unseen siblings in her room kept making 311 party-level noise. I asked, “Why’d you pick your background?” She replied, “You hear my house? I wish I was on a beach.” Yeah, us both. So computer-trickery helps cope with cabin fever and overcrowding. A lot is lost in virtual teaching. I never thought I’d say it, yet I miss seeing bored or disagreeable micro-expressions like peer-to-peer side-eyes and more. Body language in gatherings is useful biofeedback to boost student-engagement. Being present is a present.
BB: True. Okay, let’s get back to your book. There’s a real temptation on the part of reviewers and folks that write “think pieces” to call the slight increase in publishers’ interest in putting out books by POC a “trend” rather than a change in the publishing industry. Your book also does something that will probably be called a “trend”, which is discussing race from a frank and honest p.o.v. with kids. Was that always your initial hope with the book?
TM: There’s a thing that happens to me. In a Brooklyn supermarket, this elderly White woman tells me, “Has anyone said you look like Michael Jordan?” That’s one week. The next? “Has anyone said you look like Tiger Woods?” Where I teach, students say, “You look like ‘The Rock’ Dwayne Johnson”. At times, it feels that’s what reviewers and “think piece” writers do if they pair me and my books with other BIPOC and “trends”. I hope What Lane? does what Oprah Winfrey sat me down and privately told me should be my hope. Okay, Oprah said it on TV but I felt like she was talking to me. She said after interviews people ask different forms of the same question—“Did what I do matter?” Oprah called the late great Maya Angelou her godmother. Maya said, ‘”Be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud”. I hope What Lane? is a rainbow-book that brightens kids’ and families’ cloudy situations. So far, tweets from librarians, teachers, and families say it’s happening. Here’s a tweet from a Virginian librarian. Kannan Cangro says, “The worst days are ones where I read a great book and know at least 3-4 kids I want to recommend it to, but I’m not in my library and can’t just hand them it. What Lane? is that book for me right now.”
BB: Okay, so now I feel a little guilty about my next question, since it’s not all that far off in terms of lumping you in with other books. But still, in a lot of ways, I feel like WHAT LANE? is a natural companion novel to our most recent Newbery Award winner NEW KID by Jerry Craft. Both acknowledge microagressions (and worse) from the get-go. What’s your take on NEW KID?
TM: Did you just put What Lane? on the same level with a Newbery winner? Wow. Question: can you tell the Newbery judges that? LOL. There are so many cool things about your pairing. First, Jerry has called me his little brother and he’s a big book-brother from another mother. As well as us knowing each other, our journey as readers shapes the books we make. As boys, the only books we liked were comic books so our books have the kaleidoscopic energy of comics. Growing up, we didn’t see us in books, which is why New Kid and What Lane? centers boys like us and a diverse cast of races. Also, we like thin books and What Lane? is so light that there’s a Twitter photo of me balancing it on one finger. “Great minds think alike” so it’s worth noting that you and other librarians pair our books. Ro Menendez—an amazing Texan librarian—uses New Kid and my book, Tight, in book clubs. She says our books help kids analyze their behavior, identify their thought processes, and gives them words to name feelings and space to discuss tough topics in fun ways.
BB: What was the inspiration for writing WHAT LANE? in the first place?
TM: A song lyric relates to my answer. Method Man, the rapper/actor, raps “Let me know it’s real son, if it’s really real. Something I could feel”. I write reality and hope readers feel it. Let’s see if What Lane? is real. With the pandemic, are we in a lane we’ve never been in before? Must we make new choices? Are we unsure of where things will lead? Are allies important? Are we seeing “hate crimes”? Do readers feel What Lane? is real? Beth Parmer—a K-5 librarian in Columbus, Ohio—told me that an Asian girl said what happens in What Lane? happened to her dad. Parmer said, “And I think about how hard that must be for a child to deal with, and while I can’t take that pain or challenge away, your book gave us a space to process it.”
BB: As with your other books you include a LOT of superhero discussions in this novel. You kind of already mentioned it but were you a huge superhero fan as a kid?
TM: Another Rap lyric helps answer your question. Biggie raps, “Papa’s been in school since days of underoos.” Since days of underoos, I’ve imagined me web-slinging as Spider-Man. Middle school students where I teach visit me at lunch to do what I did as a middle schooler and what Stephen and his friends do in What Lane? They bond over comic books, Sci-Fi shows, and fantasy. A Hamilton musical song comes to mind, “My Shot”. As a teacher and author, I know kids often will be what they see, kids are “everyday heroic”, and they have seeds of greatness. So I’m not giving up my shot to expose readers to Black and Brown superheroes. Maybe super-input equals super-output and kids’ heroism will blossom so they become their own type of real-world heroes that we need. It’s why the half-African American and half-Puerto Rican Spider-Man from Into the Spider-verse explodes off of the first page of What Lane? and my book features Black Panther, Luke, and more.
BB: And what’s the reaction you most hope this book has on its readers?
TM: Two reactions of two people from two very different places in our country come to mind. Matthew Winner in Maryland had me on the Children’s Book Podcast. He said, “I know that those children that you teach are there in your mind always when you write because I see it on the page. I felt like you’ve shown me and readers the truth.” I hope more realize What Lane? has true unseen, unheard stories of young people. An educator and Minnesota mom— Julie Kirchner—tweeted about What Lane?, “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’s my other hope: more tweens and teens see middle school is a crossroads, racism puts us in different lanes, we get to choose who we’ll be, and let’s question if we’re all steered to the same places. If more from different parts of our world have their reaction, maybe we can reroute certain trajectories and unite more as a human family.
BB: This has been great, Torrey. So, finally, what are you working on next?
TM: Nancy Paulsen and Penguin Kids and I are working on another middle grade book that has what excites readers about my other books. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle gives a nice reveal of what’s to come in its compliment of Tight—“Moviegoers who sold out Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ at the box office will easily relate”.
Big big thanks to Torrey for taking the time to answer all my questions. You can find it out at your local Indie bookstore’s website, so go one and give it a buy.
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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