Coe Booth called Torrey Maldonado’s debut novel, Secret Saturdays (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), “a story you won’t forget.”
E.R. Frank said it “ought to be required reading at middle schools everywhere.”
Rita Williams-Garcia said it’s “playground tough with a sweet center.”
Intrigued? Well, here’s more. Maldonado, a veteran New York City public school teacher, says writing helped save him as a kid from going down the wrong path. He became the first person in his immediate family to go to college. He trained teachers and administrators on how to run conflict resolution programs. Now, he’s writing “to help young people change their lives.”
Set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects where Maldonado grew up, Secret Saturdays explores friendship and choices in an unforgettable way through 12-year-old characters Justin and Sean. Maldonado has won praise for the authenticity of his voice, but perhaps the biggest testament to his book’s impact is the way it resonates with kids. One teacher said Secret Saturdays is the most popular book for independent reading time. A librarian shared that a struggling student carries it with him everywhere he goes. A 13-year-old boy wrote Maldonado that it’s his first time reading a book longer than 100 pages.
We are proud to celebrate Torrey Maldonado on Day 12:
You wrote on your website that in your neighborhood, boys who liked school and writing were seen as soft. How did you navigate the pressure to put down your pen and find the resolve to keep writing?
From my birth to the 1980s, I felt like nearly everyone in my Red Hook projects was my family. People looked out for each other and I was protected. Then drugs ripped Red Hook apart and, by 1988, Life magazine did a nine-page photo spread calling Red Hook the “crack capital” of the U.S.A. and one of the ten worst neighborhoods in NY. What I’m about to say didn’t happen all the time but the violence happened too much. I remember being a twelve-year-old and just getting back to the Red Hook projects after visiting a relative in jail and a gun shootout started right outside while I was in the store buying groceries with food stamps. Right there, I did something that built my will to survive and succeed. Yogis say, “Ohmmm” over and over again. I remember feeling and thinking, “Someday life will be different for me. Someday life will be different for me.” You might say I was praying to get strength. I did that a lot. Then my prayer became “I’m going to make it, come back here, and get others out.” That part of me who almost didn’t “make it” still lives in me and he’s amazed that the adult-me is now using Secret Saturdays to hook Red Hook kids and other youth to books to springboard them to greater heights in life.
I read that your mom was a big influence, helping you stay on the right path. How did she support your writing journey?
Is it true that we absorb what our mothers do while we’re in their bellies? If yes, my writer-journey began in my Mom’s stomach because she read books out loud to me while rubbing her belly. She definitely set me on my journey to write. As long as I can remember, she’s treated books and writers as special. I worshipped her and wanted to be special to her so it makes sense I became a writer, yes? No. Not with the rough realities of my upbringing. A lot of relatives and people in my housing projects pressured me to stop writing because they felt writing equaled school and boys who were into school equaled soft. So how did I stay on my writing-journey while growing up in one of New York’s most violent housing projects with crime, drugs, and people around me trying to knock me off-track? Comic books. I got hooked on comic books in the third grade. Two years later, I told myself, “I will create a comic book and other books too, someday.” I look back and see that little fifth grade me made a promise that the adult “me” kept.
You’re a teacher and have trained educators on how to run conflict resolution programs. Does that give you a unique lens as an author?
If I add up how many elementary, middle schools, high schools and colleges I’ve visited before and during the release of my book, the number would be around one hundred schools. That gives me different lenses. I’m approaching ten years of public school teaching and before that I spent three years as a Conflict Resolution Trainer for the U.S.A.’s largest victims’ services agency (Safe Horizon). I trained students and adults who run and teach in schools to solve small to huge problems. Superman has X-Ray vision and sees through things and I wrote Secret Saturdays with my X-Ray Conflict Resolution lenses on. I spotted the issues behind youth-behavior then created a book that targets and solves those issues. Schools email me and say they use Secret Saturdays almost like a conflict resolution manual. Pre-teens and teens don’t want to sit down and read a conflict resolution manual but they read Secret Saturdays. Why? Most youth prefer fun, mystery, and a thrill-ride. I did what the comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s wife did. She realized her kids hated healthy foods so she snuck healthy food in delicious snacks then made a cookbook. I snuck lessons in Secret Saturdays yet instead of being “corny” Booklist calls it “infectiously readable.”
Why did you want to write for young people? What does it mean to you?
During a school-trip something happened that rocked my world. Two students who hate to read approached me. One boy said, “Mr. T, I know one of the raps from your book by heart.” Not believing him, I said, “Let me hear it.” He looked into the air and said a Black Bald’s rhyme so perfect that you’d think he was reading the rhyme off a cloud or streetlight. The other student started competing and told the boy who just rapped, “That’s nothing. Mr. T, listen to this.” Then he rapped a verse from Killah Kid. It means more than I can say that students who teachers think don’t enjoy reading love Secret Saturdays so much that they memorize parts of it. I write to hook kids to books the way those boys got hooked.
Tell us about your road to publication. How did you get your break?
I’ve been teaching for almost ten years and a few years ago I supervised an after-school program for boys who regularly got in trouble and were heading toward dropping out. The boys loved me. A few would joke, “Mr. T, you’re my father, right?” or “We’re related, right?” I grew close with them too and they shared truths about their lives that they’d never tell other staff members. One day, a seventh grader visited my classroom and asked, “You free?” I waved him in and he did something unforgettable. He stepped away from the doors so no one could see him through the door-windows and he started crying a cry you see a baby do when it needs real comforting. I jumped from behind my desk, asking, “What happened?” He cried, “My father’s gone! My father’s gone!” Around that time I was writing a magazine article about how my absent father and the absent male relatives in my life handicapped my childhood schoolwork, trust, manhood, and family. I was holding back a lot of emotions during my article-writing process. When my student cried, it was like his tears were a tidal wave that hit me and poured my emotions out. That summer I went home and stretched my article into Secret Saturdays. I later got my break after I did a lot of research, reaching out to people, getting rejected then finding that one rare person who helped me and finally shared her agent.
What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of writing Secret Saturdays?
There were a few big challenges in telling Sean’s story. His struggles were my childhood struggles yet I had to be careful not to write my life-story. My family likes to keep “family business” private. I also set the goal to show all sides of Sean when we know that males hide so much. Sean’s a Hip Hop and Rap fan and he’s the man at free-styling so he sometimes wears that rapper front. I love Hip Hop and Rap yet a lot of the music encourages our boys to wear masks or show the worst sides of people—usually that includes cursing and looking at women only as sex toys. So did I show both the public and real Seans? Did I show the roughness he absorbs from his world, music, and TV while showing his innocence, purity, and respect that so many males hide? The reviews from book experts, parents, kids, and schools say I went beyond meeting those goals so that’s one reward. Plus, I kept the book curse-free and sex-free and that makes me very happy because I’m a parent and am giving other parents a safe read for their pre-teens and teens.
I read that you wanted Secret Saturdays to be a book about choices. Why was that important to you?
Choices lead to consequences and you see examples of that in Secret Saturdays. There were points my life where I could’ve taken different turns and that would’ve drove my life over a waterfall to a deadly ending. I could’ve ended up dead, in jail, on drugs, or limited my potential like a lot of the great yet unfortunate people in my family and projects. In 1992 my elementary school principal (Patrick Daly) was shot in the chest and killed in my housing projects. Years later, I became the first person in my immediate family to go to college. As a Vassar College student, I ran into someone arrested for Daly’s murder in an upstate prison where I tutored. The inmate was a boy I ran wild with as a kid! Secret Saturdays shows that a lot influences the choices youth make yet youth can make other choices—to follow their own path and be their best selves.
Saturdays has touched young people and adults with its heart, authenticity and power. What feedback have you received from kids? from adults? What does that mean to you?
Instead of me trying to describe the feedback, I’ll let you experience some. A thirteen year old boy’s emailed me: “Hey Torrey, I want you to know I’ve never read a book over a hundred pages. Not because I don’t know how but because I don’t find books I like. On day two of having your book, I’m already 80 pages in.” A mother of a high school girl emailed me: “My daughter made me promise to tell you that she read it in a day and a half. She loved the book. I am reading it now.” A Florida librarian emailed me and posted this and her review on amazon.com and other web sites: “I believe this is a book that should be in every school. I am going to promote it to all of my fellow teachers and my students. This is one that must be read.” These emails leave me speechless.
What’s your mission as a children’s book author? What do you hope young people take away from your stories?
Kids approach me every day and say, “I love your book. I read it three times” or “They should turn your book into a movie.” My mission is to make readers feel that way and to springboard them to greater heights in life.
There’s a lot of talk about how to better connect boys with books. What can we do to more fully engage them in reading? Why is that so important?
If we want better men, we must get more boys reading, period. Boys from A to Z connect to Secret Saturdays. I joke and say I use a few magic tricks to grab the interest of guys. Here’s one secret: I wrote Secret Saturdays so alpha male teens wouldn’t feel soft carrying it. And they do. On one hand, a maximum security jail for high school boys asked me to visit because their inmates LOVE my book and, on the other hand, honor roll student-fans phone into my radio interviews, “Secret Saturdays is the ‘Most Checked Out Book’ in my school library.” Readers are leaders and reading sets our minds, hearts, and souls free so we can be the best we can be.
What advice would you give to aspiring children’s book authors?
Eighty percent of Justin’s voice is how I spoke with my friends during my pre-teen and teen years. What makes up the other 20 percent? The 2011 language of youth. Years before I wrote Secret Saturdays, I visited a Literacy (English/ Language Arts) teacher-friend for lunch. I kept grabbing urban fiction titles from her shelves and I was shocked at how many sounded fake. I picked up a famous writer’s novel and told her, “Listen to this. This sound real to you?” I read their book out loud and my friend laughed, “No! You know our kids don’t even talk like that!” So, being playful, I reread those lines how our students or real-life urban-adults sound. The Literacy teacher said, “Torrey. I’m not kidding. You should write a book. I’m serious. Kids need to see and hear themselves in books. Plus, you can write. So why not?” So, I wrote Secret Saturdays and kids find it so real that they memorize parts of my book. My advice to writers is to do what I did: read the stiff dialogue that’s on shelves, practice loosening it up, then write in that voice.
What’s next for you?
My agent told me that the writing business is “supply and demand.” Readers “demand” a sequel to Secret Saturdays then I’m told to “supply” them with Book Two. I’d like that to happen next yet the book must become wildly popular for a part two to happen.
I’m hoping that:
• Will Smith sees how Secret Saturdays is The Pursuit of Happyness for his son’s, Jayden’s, generation (Jayden’s perfect to play Justin too), or
• Tyler Perry discovers how Secret Saturdays mirrors his childhood and he turns it into a film, or
• President Obama realizes my book is the tool The White House is looking for to help youth pick up their pants and fully grab “The American Dream.” I sometimes daydream and hear him on TV telling our nation, “Secret Saturdays will bring about the ‘change’ we need for our males,” or maybe
• Oprah sees how her mission and Secret Saturdays is the same: evolve people into better humans and show life is about choices.
Until then, what’s next are two things. First, finish the novel I’m now writing, which is something Secret Saturdays fans will love. Second, I’ve got a line-up of exciting author visits in New York and other states from elementary all the way up to colleges where professors have built Secret Saturdays into their Spring courses (in two weeks I’m headed to St. Louis, where they call “dissing” “Jonesing.”)
What’s your greatest joy?
Both of my greatest joys have to do with my mother. There isn’t a greater joy than being loved unconditionally and my mother loves me no matter what. My second greatest joy is seeing how hard she worked to get me to cross certain finish lines. She wanted me to avoid getting locked up in prison like other relatives and I did. She hoped I went to college and I graduated from Vassar College (one of the best in the country). Recently, I did a Barnes and Noble reading and the room was so crowded that people sat on the floor. After, my mother hugged me and said, “You’re living my dream. You did everything I dreamt for you and more.” Wow, she and I should be a commercial that ends with “Hearing your hero say you’re her hero: Priceless.”
The Buzz on Secret Saturdays:
— YALSA’s 2011 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (See complete list here.)
“Dissing is like boxing, Justin thinks—except you fight with words instead of fists. The best disser around is Sean, who is not only mad popular but also Justin’s best friend. They are so tight, in fact, that the other kids call them twins: both are half black and half Puerto Rican, completely obsessed by hip-hop, and love to freestyle rap with each other. But now Justin is worried because something is happening to Sean. His disses are turning vicious, his grades are suffering, and he is retreating behind a wall of silence and secrets. Could it have something to do with the unexplained, out-of-town trips he and his mother are making? Justin is determined to find out. Maldonado’s first novel—set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Housing Projects, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York—is notable for its viscerally authentic treatment of setting . . . Justin’s first-person vernacular—is infectiously readable, and its characters are sympathetically and memorably realized.”
Check out a video of Torrey reading an excerpt of Secret Saturdays at the Brooklyn Book Festival:
For more on Torrey Maldonado, please visit www.torreymaldonado.com.