L.A. Libros Fest: Interview With Torrey Maldonado

Phoebe Swan Guiot, Senior Librarian, Acquisitions,
Author Torrey Maldonado
Author Torrey Maldonado

Torrey Maldonado is a critically acclaimed author who was voted a Top 10 Latino Author and best Middle Grade and Young Adult novelist. For over twenty years he has taught in the same Brooklyn neighborhood where he was born and raised. As a result of his dedication to students and passion for literacy, New York City's former and current Chancellors have praised him as a top teacher and author. Drawing from his and his students' experiences, Torrey’s work insightfully explores universal themes with honesty, authenticity, and dignity in a way that connects with tween and teen readers. Tight was named Best Book of the Year by Washington Post and NPR and won a humanitarian Christopher Award. His most current work, What Lane?, has received starred reviews.

Torrey Maldonado is one of the featured authors at this year's Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family. L.A. Libros Fest for Teens and Adults will be streamed live on YouTube.

What does heritage mean to you? How do you identify and why?

“Heritage”. “Heri”-who? I didn't hear that word as a boy. Maybe in school, it came up in lessons. For me, I puzzle-pieced together its meaning from being with family. Each June, my single-mom, sisters, and I left the Brooklyn housing projects where I was born and raised to go to Manhattan's National Puerto Rican Parade. When I asked my mom, “Why?” she replied, “Because that’s what we do”. “If you don’t go to grandma’s,” she explained what I should do after school-dismissal, “go to your Titi Sylvia’s.” “Why?” I asked. “Because that’s what we do. We check on them”. For each time I heard, “Because that’s what we do”, I heard another part of heritage—“That’s NOT what we do”. As a man, I realize heritage is like that TV show song, “You take the good. You take the bad. You take them both and..." I learned to play with the word “heritage” and turn it into inheritance the way I play with “heritage” and take the good and leave the bad to pass on an inheritance that shatters stereotypes and uplifts me and people to show what can be done.

¿Piensas regularmente en inglés o en español? ¿Cuál prefieres?

I had to type that question into Google Translate to understand it. Just joking, but for real though, as someone who wasn’t taught Spanish by family, I sometimes wish I had the superpower to speak Spanish and English. I know enough to read slowly and translate parts of things said. But if I'm with some of my Spanish-speaking relatives, the faster they talk, the less I understand. For events, English will keep our talk flowing yet if people don’t mind waiting for me to translate everything in Spanish to English then type my English answer into Google to translate it into Spanish, then I don’t mind giving it a try.

Realness and making sure I represent drives my writing. Scramble the letters in "relate" around and we pull out “real”. If writing isn't real readers won’t relate.

How does your heritage inspire your creativity?

From my first book—Secret Saturdays—to my most recent—What Lane?, people often say of my writing, “You had to live this to write this”. That’s HUGE. Also huge is what I inherited from Hip Hop and Rap. It was invented in my hometown when I was a tween. I still remember when the rapper Biz Markie walked into my apartment. My sister and him dated. Most of the time, the storytelling in Hip Hop and Rap inspired more than books. Right now, I think of two Rap lyrics that relate to my creativity. Method Man raps, “Is it real? Something I can feel?” Nas raps, “Represent, represent”. Realness and making sure I represent drives my writing. Scramble the letters in "relate" around and we pull out “real”. If writing isn't real readers won’t relate. So I’m not in the writing business as much as I’m in the “time capsule” business. What I live and lived I recreate onto the page. The lives of my communities and the students I’ve taught for over twenty years also inspires my writing.

¿Cómo aparece tu herencia en tus obras?

Hold on, I have to type that question into Google translate. Oh, I get it. True fact: my mom probably could win on a game show for knowing the most quotes. She'd tell me when I was a boy, “It takes a village to raise a child”. In Brooklyn, I discovered the power of community to shape my life. That shapes my writing. All of my books show “It takes a village to raise a child”. Having been raised by a village, I know there needs to be another part added to that African proverb. “It takes a village to raise a child" and when a child is raised by a village, they probably will have a village mentality. I have a village mentality and so do the heroes and sheroes of my books.

¿Cuál es el regalo más grande que te ha brindado tu herencia?

Ok, I'm getting faster at typing Spanish questions into Google translate. The COVID19 pandemic has made a motto popular here in New York: “New York Tough”. I once saw J-Lo in an interview. “My mom," she said, "would tell us ‘Life is tough so be tougher’”. Jennifer Lopez also is from New York. My family has always been N.Y. Tough and tougher than life’s toughness. So a great gift is my family helping me rise from poverty in the projects because it inspires me to help others rise and to know I can rise anywhere.

How do you preserve your heritage as a writer?

I risk crying snot-bubbles because this question makes me think of Coco, the 2017 Pixar film, which made me cry. In it, in the “Land of the Dead”, people keep living as long as they’re remembered on earth. My books keep my heritage and people who matter alive. My books hold memories.

Books by Torrey Maldonado

Book cover for Tight
Maldonado, Torrey

Book cover for What lane?
What Lane?
Maldonado, Torrey