Review of the Day: Hands by Torrey Maldonado
Bloat. It’s natural. You like something? Then surely you’d like more of that thing! And so our movies get longer and longer along with our music, our theater, whole runs of television shows, (my own reviews), etc. Children’s books? They’re no exception. How many times have I hefted some 300+ monster only to realize at the end that with some judicious editing the book could have been half its size? Too often, my friends. Authors will often tell you that writing something short and sweet is a hundred times more difficult than writing something long and languid. Even so, some authors just sort of excel in that area, creating stories packed into small spaces without sacrificing plot or character. In some circles I’m sure that folks would say that Torrey Maldonado is a “high-low” writer. That is, writing sophisticated stories for older readers but with a low page count that won’t scare away the reluctant. I say he more than just a label. Torrey taps into a kind of writing we’ve been in dire need of for a very long time. And with his authentic voice and whole heaping helpfuls of heart, his latest book Hands is one that your kids are NOT going to want to miss.
It’s always been about Trev’s hands. When he was younger it was all about using them for drawing. Trev’s a talented artist, and he might even have a future in it. But when Trev got older, he started using his hands for something else. That was when his stepfather lay HIS hands on Trev’s mom and went to jail for it. He swore he’d be back, and Trev’s lived in terror of that happening ever since. Seems like the only way to protect his mom, sister, and step-sister would be to learn how to fight. Now he’s doing exactly that, but not everyone’s on board. There’s a whole crew of men in the neighborhood that have set themselves up as Trev’s uncles, and they are not about to let him throw everything away because of what he fears. They’re gonna be here, instead, to show him the way.
Revenge is hot this year. More than one children’s book seems to be sporting some kind of vengence-based narrative. Admittedly, Trev probably wouldn’t say that his plans to get big and buff are vengeful. He’d say he was doing what he was doing to protect the people he loves. Even so, even the barest peek into his mind reveals that what you’ve got here is a bit of an unreliable narrator. This is particularly true when it comes to Trev’s stepdad. You see, I also love how complex even some of the villains are in this book. Trev’s stepdad isn’t your stereotypical villain. Maldonado trusts the reader enough to show the guy being a real dad to Trev, even as the darker side of his personality ultimately wins out. While Trev’s convinced that once released from prison he’ll enact revenge, the reader may end up not so sure. That’s sort of what the other characters are telling Trev in the book. He’s building his stepdad up so much in his mind that he’s turned him into a cartoon supervillain. This isn’t to say the man shouldn’t be allowed back in Trev’s life. But should Trev turn all his hopes and dreams upside down for this guy? Probably not.
Can I go back a bit here, though, and talk about the size of this book a little more? The fact of the matter is that there is no other author out there writing with Maldonado’s capabilities and then consistently putting out full-length stories that are this short. A Maldonado novel never seeks to intimidate. Chapters can be as short as a page sometimes, and that’s fine. Combine that size with content talking about contemporary Black boys living in the city in the modern day (VERY modern, since there’s a Black Adam reference to Dwayne Johnson in here, amazingly enough). Sure Jason Reynolds and some other writers are tackling similar subject matter, but not page length! Mr. Maldonado’s consistent in who he’s representing, where he’s setting his books, and what is important to him. The kid who discovers one of his books is not going to be disappointed when they find the rest of his oeuvre. They’re going to just keep reading and reading and reading . . .
A great deal of the book’s lure lies in its complications. Trev’s problem is anything but straightforward. The end of the book certainly reflects that. I’ve always had a sense that Torrey Maldonado doesn’t so much solve everyone’s problems by the end of his books as give his characters additional options. For kids raised on the notion that storytelling requires complete and utter closure, this may at first strike them as maddening. But in Hands Torrey keeps the circle open to perhaps his greatest effect yet. The pessimist might say that by refusing to solve the problem the author spares the reader from having to see further awful things down the road. I think a more likely answer is that the author is being honest with the reader. Life is rarely tied up in a neat little bow, and in eschewing some kind of deus ex machina, the story is honoring the complications surrounding Trev’s life. This works better in some instances than others. There’s an incident in the hallway, at one point, where Trev truly believes that the only way to protect his sister is to punch something. We’re told he always has options but nobody in their right mind would think the best option was to call the cops. It would have been nice for someone to have told Trev a cleverer solution to that situation that could have resolved things without blood or police, but instead the reader is left with the vague sense that while most of the book’s messaging about hands makes sense, that one instance is significantly less clear.
Admittedly, some choices were made at the beginning of the book that also gave me some pause. Initially, Trev is introduced as a guy trying to learn from the great fighters of the past. These are named repeatedly, and one name in particular comes up more than once: Mike Tyson. Now, it doesn’t take much effort to link Tyson to domestic abuse. So when he came up a second time I assumed that Torrey was going to make a point of this. Trev’s learning that hands can only solve so much with violence, so it would make sense for him to learn that some of his heroes have committed crimes similar to (and worse than) his stepfather’s. Unfortunately, it’s a dangling plot thread that just keeps on dangling. Mike’s presence is never challenged, which felt like nothing so much as a lost opportunity.
Ultimately, family is the theme in this particular Maldonado creation. Not just immediate family, or the family you marry in to, but the family that is your community and the people that love you. Trev is blessed, almost ridiculously so, with uncles. Uncle upon uncle upon uncle. They’re not related to him (mostly). They’re just men who took it upon themselves to protect Trev, whether he wants that help or not. So while the book traces him awakening to the fact that maybe punching stuff isn’t the best way to solve problems, it’s also tracing this dawning realization that these men are an invaluable family and resource to him. Does that mean that they can solve all his problems? Better table that question for a book discussion group.
Sometimes people ask me what books are still missing from the marketplace when it comes to kids. Where are the gaps? What aren’t we seeing? Honestly, I feel like sometimes you don’t know a gap’s even been there until it’s filled. Torrey Maldonado, now HE knows how to fill those kinds of gaps. I guess I sort of knew that short fiction for older kids had become increasingly hard to find, but it wasn’t really until I started reading his books that this was drilled home. Hands is going to find its audience and it’s going to resonate soundly with them. Homey and touching, complicated and unafraid to deal with paradoxes, I may not agree with all the decisions in the book but the final product is ultimately a strong piece I’d hand to any kid willingly. Especially the kids that don’t even know it’s what they need.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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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