Secret Saturdays summary : Sean and Justin are 12, both half Black and half Puerto Rican (note: How they deal with being bi-racial an important element of the story), and best friends who live in Red Hook Projects, a dangerous neighborhood in New York. Soon a change appears in Sean’s behavior: his grades are slipping and he’s acting up. In addition, every Saturday he takes trips with his mother to an unknown destination. What’s the deal with Sean? Where does he go and how does Justin handle the situation? Pick up the book to find out! Secret Saturdays is published by Putnam Juvenile, a division of Penguin Group.
Multiculturalism Rocks!: Hi Torrey, congratulations and thank you for joining us today! Please, tell us a little bit about your journey as an author. When was Torrey Maldonado, The Writer, born?
Torrey Maldonado: 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 worshiped 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 the fifth grade “me” made a promise that the adult “me” kept.
To put things in perspective for the rest of us (mere mortals), how long was Secret Saturdays in the making, from its conception to its publication?
I’ve been teaching for almost ten years and a few years ago I supervised an after-school program for boys who regularly got into 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.
Secret Saturdays has strong, resilient and inspiring main characters. I’m particularly struck by their family backgrounds, the neighborhood they live in, the absence of a father figure in their lives and the homelessness factor. How close does Secret Saturdays ring to home? Where did the inspiration come from?
From my birth to the1980s, 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 and just getting back to 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.
What was your biggest challenge when writing about Sean’s life?
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’m now speaking to Torrey, the teacher: In your classroom you notice a kid whose grades are slipping. In addition, he speaks back to you, makes one of his classmates trip. You discover weed and a knife in his locker. What do you do? What do you tell him?
In Secret Saturdays weed and knives aren’t found in lockers. However, in my book, kids’ grades slip, they speak back, and some bully. Grades’ slipping and speaking back to a teacher is something a teacher can handle. I’ve visited hundreds of schools before becoming an author. My recent author-visits let me see inside other schools. Over thirteen years, I’ve seen adults viciously put down kids about poor grades or behavior—in front of other children. That’s bullying, period. Bullying is when someone with power acts harmfully or aggressively toward another person to gain something while putting his or her victim down. A teaching certificate or administrative license doesn’t give anyone permission to be mean. I’ve also seen teachers put “band-aids” on problems by only calling home or giving detention. When it comes to bad grades or behavior-issues, I make every effort to, first, pull youth to the side to discuss the problem, spot the issues behind the grades or the behavior, and we create a plan to solve the issues. That’s a habit from my Conflict Resolution training. My experience is youth become honest and friendlier when they don’t have an entire class or crowd staring at them. Most times, a student will work with me to get back on track. As for weed and a knife, teachers are mandated reporters. If I see drugs or weapons, I legally must report that to my dean and administration.
I really enjoyed the voices of Justin, the narrator, and his friend Sean—young, blunt and true. Were they easy to capture? Any tips on character’s voices that made a difference in your writing journey?
Eighty per cent of Justin’s voice is how I spoke with my friends during my pre-teen and teen years. What makes up the other twenty 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 is one reaction to Secret Saturdays from your readers that rocked your world?
One reaction that rocked my world happened during a school-trip. 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 rhymes 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 always rocks my world when students that teachers and parents think don’t enjoy reading love Secret Saturdays so much that they memorize parts of it.
Will there be a sequel? Pending this isn’t classified information, are you currently working on another book?
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 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 a line-up of exciting author-visits in New York and other states to elementary all the way up to colleges where professors have built Secret Saturdays into their Spring courses (in two weeks I’m flying to St. Louis to meet awesome students who taught me that what we call “dissing” in Brooklyn is called “Jonesing” in St. Louis).
Last but not least: For a day you can be any children’s book character you want. You are…
If I can be any children’s book character, I’ll be a comic book hero. By age fourteen, I had almost two hundred comics. I also had a cat named Snow White and she peed on and scratched my collection down to fifty comics. So maybe I would have a super power that freezes pets during mid-pee to prevent us from losing things we love. I’m like the baseball legend Roberto Clemente, or Soledad O’Brien from CNN, or Fabolous the rapper because I’m an Afro-Latino American. People think I’m straight African American and that’s a compliment I embrace. Hancock is Black and almost my skin-color. Ironman has my Puerto Rican American heritage. A lot of people don’t know Tony Starks is Latino. So as a hero, I’d be a mix of Hancock and Ironman (with the bonus power of pausing and redirecting pets to pee in the right places).
Thank you Torrey, for your time and for sharing your experience. I wish Secret Saturdays to change many lives, as well as much success!
o Maldonado, Torrey. Secret Saturdays. Penguin Group/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010. $16.99. 978-0399251580.
o Torrey Maldonado’s Website.
o Secret Saturdays is a 2011 ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Congratulations!
o February 12, 2011: Torrey Maldonado featured on The Brown Bookshelf as part of the 28 Days Later Campaign, which celebrates Black History Month.
o Multiculturalism Rocks! review of Secret Saturdays.