In 1988, “Life” magazine dubbed Red Hook, Brooklyn, “the crack capital of America.” Longtime middle school teacher and Christopher Award-winning author Torrey Maldonado grew up in the neighborhood’s housing projects during that era and recalled that he was surrounded by all the “dehumanizing, neglecting, subjugating conditions” you would find today while watching “The Wire” or playing “Grand Theft Auto.”
But he also notes that the media depiction didn’t give the full picture. There were people working hard to lift up the community and its residents. One of them was his mother.
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview (podcast below), Torrey said, “There’s no way that I could be who I am today, growing up in such a dark stretch of time in the Red Hook housing projects, without the light that was my mother and the village that she helped create around me…She created this force field around me, a force field of light and love, and she enlisted people in the neighborhood [that] helped steer me to where I am today.”
She didn’t just do it for Torrey, though, but for the wider community. He recalled, “[My mom] was one of the biggest teachers in the Red Hook housing projects because she ran a General Equivalency Diploma degree program, where if you dropped out of high school, you could get your GED, and it would serve as a high school degree. My mom managed to get over 900 high school dropouts to get their GEDs, get their lives back on track, start families, move forward, and be rainbows in people’s clouds and to shine their light.”
Her main focus, of course, was her son. When Torrey and his mom would walk through the neighborhood, she would point out people and situations that he should stay away from because they could derail the promising future she saw for him. She also quoted to him the Bible verse from Matthew 17:20 – “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
She showed him how small a mustard seed really is, and he realized, “I can have just that tiny amount of faith, then all the things that my mom is saying that I can do, that all the places that she says that I’ll be able to go in the future beyond our housing projects, maybe that’s possible if I just exercise this mustard seed faith.”
And that’s exactly what Torrey did. After teaching sixth grade in Brooklyn for many years, he fulfilled his dream of becoming an author, finding inspiration in his own past and the lives of his students. His second novel, “Tight,” won a Christopher Award in the Books for Young People category. “One of the reasons why I loved getting the Christopher Award,” Torrey said, “is because it acknowledged what happened throughout my journey in the Red Hook housing projects. The Christopher Award is about shining light. It’s about helping people become their best angels.”
“Tight” told the story of Bryan, an introspective middle schooler who hates being called “soft,” just because he doesn’t want to get into fights. Instead, he loves reading comic books about Batman and Black Panther, who use their brains, not just their brawn, to deal with problems. When Bryan meets Mike, he believes he’s finally found a true friend. But Mike soon displays a darker side that leads the duo into some illegal and dangerous situations. “Tight” presents a relevant story about struggling to make the right moral choices in the face of peer pressure, and learning to be true to who you really are.
Torrey said, “Over 20 years of teaching has taught me that if books don’t love young people, young people won’t love the books back. And throughout my…school experience, I was constantly asked to read books that didn’t have anyone who looked like me, that didn’t have people who look like people in my community. They didn’t look like people who are allies to my community. And I unplugged from books…When I wrote ‘Tight,’ I said to myself, ‘I have to have kids see themselves. They have to be at the center of the narrative.’ I also wanted the kids to know from page one to the end…[that their] voice [and] stories matter. The book was written with a lot of empathy. The book also was celebrating my mom because in ‘Tight’ we have a very strong, positive mother figure who really holds her family together and helps steer Bryan to avoid certain social traps. It steers him in the right direction.”
Torrey’s latest book is titled “What Lane?” and it’s been praised by Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Oprah Winfrey. It’s the story of a sixth grader named Stephen, who is half African American and half white.
“I really love this book because [it] reflects my life,” Torrey explained. “My family is split, black and Puerto Rican. And this boy’s life, he’s split – he’s African American and white. His white friends, they hang out with each other and they hang out with him. His African American and Latino friends, they hang out with each other and they hang out with him. But his white friends and his black and Latino friends, they don’t hang out with each other. And something happens in the book that swerves them all into the same lane and really circles us back to what The Christophers tries to do: shine light that we are all human and we’re all part of the same human family and we belong together and we can uplift each other.”
Racism is another element in the book as Stephen comes to notice that he is being treated differently than his white best friend Dan. When Dan sees and acknowledges this fact, it strengthens their relationship.
Torrey recalled, “I come from a family who, when I was Stephen’s age…I started to become aware of racism. I had relatives who told me for different reasons, ‘Don’t focus on racism. Don’t look at you being treated differently because of how you look. Instead, work hard and things will be all right.’ And there is a power in working hard. But there’s also a power in acknowledgement. When we acknowledge what someone is going through, we’re saying, ‘I see you.’ Often, black youth and marginalized youth feel invisible. And Stephen, he starts to experience that invisibility. When his white friend sees what’s happening and acknowledges it, it’s him saying, ‘Stephen, I see you. And you matter. Black lives matter. You as a person matter. And what you experience as a black person matters.'”
“It opens up conversations in the book between Dan and Stephen,” continued Torrey, “where they start to drive to a higher ground of empathy and understanding with each other. Also, they say, ‘You can’t fix what you don’t look at.’ And the mere acknowledgement is saying, ‘I’m looking at this with you. Let’s let’s fix this problem together.'”
Interestingly, Torrey also expresses some empathy for “What Lane’s” villain, Chad. He has received mail from readers who feel a lot of anger towards the character, but then go on to say they can see why he is the way he is.
“There’s that saying, ‘Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,'” said Torrey. “You see Chad’s friends in the book and you see how they egg him on to do the prejudicial, racist things that he does. You see what his parents do. And what we also see is that he has the potential to change. It’s very important to let people know that they can change because my life is an example of that.
“I was left back in the third grade. When I shared my dreams with certain teachers, they looked at me, not for the boy who I was, but they looked at me as the stereotype that they were given by society. And if I would have been just treated as a stereotype by everyone I met, then I would have fulfilled that negative prophecy. However, there were people in the village that my mom set up and there were people in the villages of different schools who looked at me, saw my humanity, saw where I wanted to go, and helped me go to where I wanted to go. And that’s why I’m here today writing the things that I write about: hope and the light in the darkness.”
(To listen to my full interview with Torrey Maldonado, click the podcast link):