Book Review: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

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This review by Lila Quintero Weaver is based on an advance uncorrected galley.

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Bryan has a good idea of what’s tight to him—reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But “no drama” doesn’t come with the territory of where he’s from, so he’s feeling wound up tight. While his mom encourages his calm, thoughtful nature, his quick-tempered dad says he needs to be tough because it’s better for a guy to be feared than liked.

And now Bryan’s new friend Mike is putting the pressure on—all of a sudden, his ideas of fun are crazy risky. When Bryan’s dad ends up back in jail, something in Bryan snaps and he allows Mike to take the lead. At first it’s a rush as Bryan starts cutting school and subway surfing. But Bryan never feels quite right when he’s acting wrong, and Mike ends up pushing him too far.

Fortunately, if there’s anything Bryan has learned from his favorite superheroes, it’s that he has the power to stand up for what he believes.

MY TWO CENTS: Starring an Afro-Puerto Rican character from Brooklyn, NY, this entertaining middle-grade novel is a brilliant read layered with emotional richness and nuance. Along with its primary selling point as a solid and strongly voiced story, Tight delivers an important but subtly threaded message on self-respect and moral courage. Bryan’s internal wrestling match, one brought on by a questionable friendship, lies at the crux of the story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story line could have easily devolved into a morality play. But Maldonado avoids such cardboard cutouts in favor of a skillfully crafted portrait of a relatable middle-grader facing down his vulnerabilities and learning how to choose the higher road.

Sharply drawn from head to toe, Bryan is a sympathetic character with a mounting dilemma that begins as soon as a boy named Mike makes his appearance. Initially, Bryan feels suspicious of the new boy, but lets go of those reservations when Mike reveals a kindred love of superhero comic books. Still, subtle things about Mike continue to nag at Bryan, setting up an undercurrent of mistrust. As Mike works his charisma on Bryan, gradually opening doors to dangerous and alluring pastimes, Bryan begins to rationalize his original misgivings. To complicate matters, things on the home front are going south, too. Bryan’s father, who’s recently gotten out of jail, seems to be courting trouble again, putting the whole family in a state of tension.

Although at times Bryan succumbs to risky behavior, he seems most like himself when the drama is dialed way down. He actually relishes the peace and quiet of his “office,” an unused desk at his mother’s workplace, where he spreads out his homework. In this vein, we also witness him happily chatting on a park bench with his mom, who he endearingly refers to as “my heart.”

You cannot help but love Bryan. He reads as a real boy, with a real life, and a rings-true voice that expresses rich interiority. But as if to test his tender side, Bryan’s world is complicated by the code of machismo. At his school and in his neighborhood, the message telegraphed at boys is don’t be soft. This refrain of warped masculinity features in many a Latinx treatment. Fortunately, Maldonado lifts the story above such tropes by enlivening Bryan with contradictory currents and introducing fresh possibilities that will keep readers on their toes.

Other elements of Latinx life include food (chicharrones, alcapurrias) and observations on ethnic identity. In an early scene, Bryan reveals that he purchased the new Miles Morales Spider-Man comic because “he’s my age and looks like me. He’s half black and half Puerto Rican. I’m full Rican but heads rarely guess right.”

It’s obvious that Bryan has a lot on his plate. Here he is at the corner bodega presenting a note from his mom, in which she appeals for store credit.

When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.

I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.

Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”

Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous-smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.

What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.

Does it need pointing out that Maldonado nails the art of voice?

In addition, he commands a spare approach to description, choosing a handful of small details for the sizzle they bring. One of my favorite examples of colorful scene-setting occurs when Bryan and Mike pass through a crowded train station. “Mike ducks under a turnstile and races up the steps. ‘PAY YOUR FARE!’ the teller’s voice yells through the microphone in the MetroCard booth. It sounds extra scary because it’s all metallic, like Darth Vader’s voice.”

This is a novel that kid readers across the board will go for, and that readers hungry for Afro-Latinx representation will cheer on. In Bryan, Maldonado has created a vivid, relatable character with a lot going on between his ears. He has also built a fascinating and realistic world for this character to occupy, and spun a story that packs punch, enclosing within it hidden, but never preachy, lessons about life and love and healthy self-respect.

IMG_5888ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

Click here to see our recent Q&A with Torrey Maldonado.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and a novel for kids, My Year in the Middle. Connect with her on Twitter, where her handle is @LilaQWeaver.

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 6: Torrey Maldonado

 

We are back from our summer break with lots of great, new interviews, book reviews, and events planned. We start today with a Q&A with middle grade author Torrey Maldonado, who is celebrating the release of his latest novel, Tight.

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the sixth in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Torrey Maldonado. And it’s an extra-special day because…

Torrey’s latest novel, Tight, releases TODAY!!

HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY, TORREY!!

 

Here’s a description of the novel: Bryan knows what’s tight for him–reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But drama is every day where he’s from, and that gets him tight, wound up.

And now Bryan’s friend Mike pressures him with ideas of fun that are crazy risky. At first, it’s a rush following Mike, hopping turnstiles, subway surfing, and getting into all kinds of trouble. But Bryan never really feels right acting so wrong, and drama really isn’t him. So which way will he go, especially when his dad tells him it’s better to be hard and feared than liked?

But if there’s one thing Bryan’s gotten from his comic heroes, it’s that he has power–to stand up for what he feels.

Torrey Maldonado delivers a fast-paced, insightful, dynamic story capturing urban community life. Readers will connect with Bryan’s journey as he navigates a tough world with a heartfelt desire for a different life.

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And here’s more about Torrey: What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping, relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

 

And now, here’s our Q&A with Torrey Maldonado:

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

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Torrey and his mom. Photo given by Torrey Maldonado.

A:  My mom inspired me to become a writer. When I was a boy, maybe no taller than a fire hydrant with my Jackson 5 Afro probably bigger than my head, she told me, “I read out loud to you when you were in my belly.” But a lot fought against my Mom trying to build me into a reader and writer. In the Brooklyn Red Hook housing projects, where I was born and raised, and in lots of neighborhoods, boys were and are bullied for our bookishness, and it happened to me. Currently, a buzz-phrase is “safe spaces.” My mom made our apartment my safe space to be bookish. The rapper 50 Cent’s debut album was Get Rich or Die Tryin’. My mom’s attitude was “Get My Kid into Lit or Die Tryin’.” My whole life, her apartment was the only in our projects where I saw a library. For being bookish, I got bullied outside and in school, then cuddled with Ma on our couch as she read to me. When she read and wrote, her eyes always smiled. As I got older, she took me far out of our projects to authors’ readings. She is my heart, loved writing, and admires writers. My motto is “Kids will be what they see,” and it’s fitting that I followed her footsteps. I represent her writing-spirit out in the world.

 

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. I have taught middle school for nearly twenty years. I see my students as me at their ages. The middle school years are “crossroad years” where tweens need direction. Plus, so much of their awesomeness should be spotlighted. I see them unplug from books because a lot of required readings aren’t culturally responsive mirrors and windows. It inspires to give my students and other middle schoolers essential books that I needed at their ages. Pretty cool related news: a teacher recently tweeted that Tight is the “most essential reading for middle grade teachers recommending books to their readers this fall.” Let’s hope my middle students and others agree.

 

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A.  My favorite middle grade novels do for readers what my favorite books did for me. Best books are a fleeting magic carpet-ride out of problems yet show kids the magic around them. They help kids feel that their world is bigger than their zip code. Also, my favorite middle school books are culturally responsive mirrors and windows. Some think books fall in different categories: windows here and mirrors over there. My favorite middle grade books are both windows and mirrors.

 

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

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Torrey in middle school. Photo given by Torrey Maldonado.

A. What I’m about to share is what I wish I knew sooner because it would’ve steered me from drama and sped me toward my life goals faster. Here’s my advice: accept and develop all helpful sides of you and know how to code-switch, meaning switch what you show others depending on where you are. My characters of Tight do that. Here’s why accepting and developing all helpful sides of you matters. That perfect person you see over there? They’re not perfect. Everyone is not perfect. That’s a reason Insecure on HBO by Issa Rae is a hit. On it, Issa is herself, a mess, insecure, and quirky with many sides. Millions of people and I love her because we relate. Now, here’s the thing about accepting and “doing you”—you have to know how to code-switch. Issa code-switches when she talks to her boss because she knows what Bryan in Tight knows—you can’t show all of you all of the time. President Obama kicked slang with Jay-Z and Beyoncé then spoke mainstream American English in his White House meetings with advisors. Why code-switch? You see in Tight how you need to shield your candle flame so know one blows it out. Code-switching is a shield. Then the right time comes when you can bring out and shine a different light and others will welcome it. People shielded my light until I learned to shield it, and it helped me be a bullied bookish, insecure, quirky boy who developed his many sides on the DL. In time, I grew into a published book author who is lucky to be invited to shine and share light in cool interviews like this one.

 

Q. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

A. Middle grade novels are important because middle school youth are awesome, multidimensional, heroic in many ways and all of that should be spotlighted.

 

Torrey’s novels:

   

 

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: Who’s Ju? (Seventh Grade Sleuths #1) by Dania Ramos

 

Reviewed by Caissa Casarez

Image result for who's ju? book coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK’S BACK COVER: Justina ‘Ju’ Feliciano and her fellow seventh-grade sleuths are on the case! A sneaky vandal has damaged scenery from the middle school drama club production and the newbie detectives must catch the culprit before opening night.

But Ju faces a completely different kind of mystery when a genetics assignment forces her to investigate the cold hard fact that her frizzy blonde hair and amber eyes don’t match the shades of brown that run in her family. This is one case she wishes she didn’t have to solve. Only there’s no escaping the Blueprint of Life Project, so Ju searches the attic for family documents she needs to complete her schoolwork. Instead, she discovers strange clues that make her wonder if her parents are keeping a huge secret.

Ju’s amateur sleuthing and a confrontation with her parents finally lead to the cold hard facts about her past. And even though her life changes forever, she’s still the same mystery-loving girl she’s always been.

MY TWO CENTS: This book drew me in right away with the title of the first chapter (“DNA Malfunction”) and the first mini-paragraph – “It’s not hard evidence. Just a family photo stuck on our silver fridge with a teapot magnet. Case closed.” It may not be clear to some, but I knew I was in for a good read – and I was right.

As the book begins, Dania Ramos uses a great choice of words to describe the middle school setting and to profile the main character, Justina (pronounced Hoosteenah) Feliciano. She’s just a normal 7th grade girl who’s trying to survive the tumultuous times in middle school while trying to figure out why she doesn’t look like the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With her frizzy blond hair and light eyes, she stands out.

Justina – or Ju (pronounced Hu) for short – has her core group of friends, the Seventh-Grade Sleuths, and she’s not the most popular girl in school, so she’s surprised when former friend Sara asks her for help to solve a very important case. I loved how Ramos wrote the case of the vandalized scenery in a way similar to a decades-old cold case – because to Justina, Ig, and Gunther, it is that big of a deal.

The other conflict in the book involves a genetics assignment in Justina’s health class. Her mother is immediately against the assignment, and she wants to know why – so she finds out. Ramos’ writing compared Justina to Sherlock Holmes and other detectives, which I got a kick out of. I also loved how Justina was so determined to find answers, even when her parents weren’t okay with it.

Another aspect of the book that hit home for me was when Ju decided to change her identity – new clothes, new (blond) hairdo, and a new name. I tried a similar method in middle school myself, which I’m ashamed of now. But on the other hand, when you feel out of place in a way Justina does in the book, it’s an understandable move.

After a runaway scare (and reconciling with best friend Ig), Justina eventually finds out the truth – she doesn’t look like the rest of her family because she’s adopted. She’s heartbroken but is understanding, and even agrees to meet her birth father. Ramos wrote this part of the story in a way that was endearing and welcoming, which I enjoyed.

Overall, Who’s Ju? is a lovely read. I would say the question in the title is certainly answered, but I hope to see more from Ramos about Ju and her friends and family in the future.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be a great way for middle-grade students, especially girls, to learn about something that isn’t taught in many classes before high school – social sciences. It’s important for kids to learn that you are not defined by your skin color and that, like Justina, you can identify a certain way no matter how you look. The book would also help kids learn about adoption and solving crimes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Dania is an author, playwright, and teaching artist. Her middle grade novel Who’s Ju? won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Best YA eBook and was a finalist for the ILBA Mariposa Award for Best First Book.

Dania’s stage writing credits include Mi Casa Tu Casa (Luna Stage, Dreamcatcher Rep, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival) and Hielo (developed through the Women Playwrights Project at Writers Theatre of New Jersey). Her plays have also been featured in the New Jersey Women Playwrights Series (co-presented by Writers Theatre of New Jersey and Speranza Theatre Company), Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Reading Series, Writers Theatre of New Jersey’s FORUM and Soundings Reading Series, Luna Stage’s Short Play Festival, and the Maslow Salon Reading Series at Wilkes University. She’s been a finalist in the MetLife Nuestras Voces National Playwriting Competition and the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship.

Dania is a creative writing instructor and a theatre teaching artist. She has led arts residencies and workshops for organizations including New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Writers Theatre of New Jersey, Writopia Lab, and the New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts.

Dania is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, and Actors Equity Association. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from Montclair State University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband.

BOOK LINKS: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, GoodReads

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Caissa Casarez is a proud multiracial Latina and a self-proclaimed nerd. When she’s not working for public television, Caissa loves reading, tweeting, and drinking cold brew. She especially loves books and other stories by fellow marginalized voices. She wants to help reach out to kids once in her shoes through the love of books to let them know they’re not alone. Caissa lives in St. Paul, MN, with her partner and their rambunctious cat. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @cmcasarez.

A Writer Belongs Everywhere: Stories from a Writing Workshop for Middle School Girls

 

By Tracey Flores

“A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” ~Gloria Anzaldúa

On an overcast and windy day in May, ten young girls and women–daughters, sisters, mothers and teachers–gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s 7th grade classroom for an afternoon of sharing, writing and storytelling. Nibbling on pepperoni pizza and pink frosted cookies, desks arranged in a small circle in the front of the room, we sat with folders, notebook paper, and pencils, writing a letter to our sisters or mothers. This letter was the culminating writing of an afternoon of drawing self portraits and writing how we see ourselves and how we see our sisters and mothers.

As the the pencils stopped and everyone came to their closing thoughts, I invited everyone to turn to their sister or mother and read the letter they had just written to them. As I walked around the room to lean in and listen, with permission, I noticed that these handwritten letters were filled with words of advice, encouragement, and promises. They were filled with the words that many times we are too shy or afraid to share for fear of ridicule or embarrassment.

Alexandria read, “Dear Mom, An advice I want to share with you is ‘Live life to the fullest.’”

Dede read to her older sister, “…I believe in you whatever you do.”

Estefania read to her daughter, “…my sweet little miss…just know everything you do big or small I am proud of you everyday.”

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This vignette of an after-school writing workshop for middle school girls and their families illustrates the transformative power of creating space with and for our students and their families that honors their lived experiences and ways of knowing. For two weeks, we gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s room to engage in discussion, reflection, and storytelling on topics such as creating positive self-definitions, family, and education. Although our time together was brief, we created a supportive community of writers.

As a classroom teacher, and now as a PhD candidate, I have the privilege of working with families in after-school bilingual writing workshops, like the one in the vignette. In these writing workshops, students, their siblings and grandparents work side-by-side to tell, draw, write and share stories from their lived experiences. It is an opportunity for families to enter the classroom as experts and draw upon their cultural and linguistic resources to reflect on their lived experience through storytelling, drawing, and writing.

These bilingual family writing workshops are designed within a writing workshop framework, with a mini-lesson, writing time, sharing time, and a closing reflection. Each workshop begins with the reading and discussion of a bilingual picture book, poem, or short memoir. This text is carefully selected and serves multiple purposes. First, it is selected to introduce families to the theme of the workshop. Second, the topic of the text is considered in how families may relate to it or connect it to their own experiences, if the book is culturally relevant or rather recreates negative stereotypes. Lastly, the topics, writing, text structure, and organization are considered in how they might provide families with a powerful mentor text (Fletcher, 2011) for their own writing.

After the opening text is shared and discussed, I model my own writing by talking through what I am doing and thinking as I put drawing and writing on chart paper. Sometimes I model my brainstorm and other times I just draw and write. Then, I invite families to draw and write their own stories or poems. This is my favorite part, watching students and their families write and share their stories, many times for the first time with one another.

Over the years, in these workshops, families shared stories of celebrating Las Posadas with their family and community, stories of ranchos that stretched over acres in rural parts of México where they learned to tend the animals and to cherish all the resources of the tierra, and stories of special abuelitas who embraced them and loved them in that special way only an abuelita loves you.

As I wrote earlier in this post, in preparation for working with families in workshops, I always gather several texts in a variety of genres to use as mentor texts. Below is a short list that I have used as mentor texts in bilingual writing workshops with Latinx families in schools and community centers across Phoenix and Glendale in Arizona.

IMG_3446Alarcón, F. (2005). Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para sonar juntos. Illustrations by Paula Barragán. Lee & Low Books.

Carlson, L.M. (2013). Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. Square Fish.

Cisneros, S. (1994). Hairs/Pelitos: A Story in English and Spanish from The House on Mango Street. Dragonfly Books.

Cisneros, S. (1994). La Casa en Mango Street. Translated by Elena Poniatowska. Vintage Books.

Cisneros, S. (1991). The House on Mango Street. Vintage Books

Costales, A. (2007). Abuelita full of life/Abuelita llena de vida. Illustrations by Martha Aviles. Cooper Square Publishing.

Fanelli, Sara. (1995). My Map Book. HarperCollins.

Garza, C.L. (2005). Family Pictures/Cuadros de familia. Children’s Book Press.

Garza, C.L. (1996). In My Family/En mi familia. Children’s Book Press.

González, L. (2008). The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos. Illustrations by Lulu Delacre. Children’s Book Press.

Herrera, J.F. (1998). Laughing Out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish. HarperCollins.

Lyon, G.E. (1999). Where I’m From: Where Poems Come From. Absey & Co.

Medina, J. (2004). The Dream on Blanca’s Wall: Poems in English and Spanish/ El sueño pegado en la pared de Blanca: Poemas en ingles y español. Illustrations by Robert Casilla. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.

Ortiz Cofer, J. (2004). Call Me María. Scholastic Inc

Ortiz, A. (2015). Rant. Chant. Chisme. Wings Press.

Rodríguez, L. (1998). América is her name. Illustrations by Carlos Vasquez. Curbstone Books.

Soto, G. (2005). Neighborhood Odes. Harcourt.

Note: This summer, I will be collaborating with three teachers to facilitate a second series of bilingual writing workshops for Latina middle school students and their mothers. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post with stories and learnings from these writing workshops

 

321988_10101177230382771_455531340_o-1Tracey Flores is a former English Language Development (ELD) and Language Arts teacher who worked in elementary classrooms for eight years. She currently serves as the director of El Día de los Niños, El Día de los Libros and is a teacher consultant with the Central Arizona Writing Project (CAWP) at Arizona State University (ASU). Currently, Tracey is a PhD Candidate in English Education in the Department of English at ASU. Her research focuses on adolescent Latina girls and mothers’ language and literacy practices and on using family literacy as a springboard for advocacy, empowerment, and transformation for students, families, and teachers. In her free time she enjoys writing, reading Young Adult (YA) literature, drinking coffee, running, practicing yoga and spending time with her 8 month old daughter.