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.
ABOUT 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.