Interview with Torrey Maldonado about HANDS

Shari: Hi Torrey! Welcome to MG Book Village! Since seeing the cover of Hands, I have been so excited to read it and talk to you about it! Please tell our readers about this powerhouse of a book!

Torrey: I’m excited too to talk about Hands and for it to be released everywhere in two weeks. The same aged readers who have enjoyed my other books, who say they should be turned into movies and graphic novels, say Hands is about themes in my other books: friendship, family, choices. I returned to those themes in Hands because these are constant themes in all tweens’ and teens’ lives. Hands is a middle grade book that follows a sixth grade main character, and I’m also getting lots of great feedback from fourth through eighth grade kids saying, “I read Hands in one day” and that it’s the closest thing to a tween/teen Creed–the boxing movie with Michael B. Jordan (who also plays Kilmonger in Black Panther). They agree that Hands is a story about responsibility, promise, questioning what strength is, and comparing how much can be achieved by one person to how much more can be done with a team. Trev is like many young people I’ve taught over the last twenty five years. He sees muscles as strength and feels responsible to help solve family problems but feels alone to solve them. A problem is he wants to protect his mom and sisters from his stepdad because when he left he threatened Trev’s mom. Trev’s getting messages from media, friends, and his neighborhood about “throwing hands” so he thinks he needs to learn to fight to protect his family so he trains to box as good as Muhammad Ali and Creed on his bedroom wall’s posters and others. Here’s the thing, even though he puts on lots of muscle and is almost six feet tall and gets so nice with his hands that he could do what you see Jake Paul or Tyson do, Hands puts you right in his heart and mind as he wonders if boxing hand-skills is what’s best. Because Trev has talent as a comic-book artist and he has uncles who’ve used fists as weapons and they tell him that drawing could help him build a better future. They say school is the best way for him to keep his promises to protect and help his family. Trev’s really torn–feeling east-west, which is a phrase I invented that repeats in Hands

Shari: I love that phrase – it so perfectly describes that inner struggle that all readers can connect to! Trev is a conflicted character with complex emotions. How were you able to get into his head so well to convey his emotional tug-of-war? 

Torrey: I got the chance to narrate the audiobook of Hands and, after recording a few pages, the recording director and engineer said the same thing: “Trev is you–you can hear it in your voice”. And you know that camp song, “Everywhere we go/ people always know . . .”? Well, anywhere I go, people know Trev is younger me. I was in a Brooklyn library when a teacher who’s doing a gradewide read of Hands told me, “Trev is you. Isn’t he?”. So it’s great that I’m not hiding that fact, true? And the feedback from educators on social media is that it’s obvious that many young readers are Trev too–they share his feelings, struggles, and situations.

Shari: I will definitely be checking out the audiobook as well! Trev’s family and friends are of utmost importance to him, to the point he feels compelled to defend them. Why do you think it’s so important for young people to find their “village”? 

Torrey: We all feel how Trev does. There are two tweens who do book reviews and they never met but they both like the Maya Angelou quote that repeats in Hands, and they both say they share the same trait as Trev. A sixth grader named Rahul says in his blog “Rahul’s Playing with Words”, “One scene that was incredibly impactful in Hands was when Trev looked at the quote above his uncle’s sofa. The quote says, ‘Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud’. I connected to this quote because just like Trev, sometimes I feel responsible for taking care of my family, especially my younger sister . . . I wish that my actions could help bring some light to a person’s gloomy day.” In his review of Hands, E Train explains he feels that is one of his new favorite quotes. So many young readers are similar to Trev and they just want to add light to other people’s cloudy days and make them feel light when they feel heavy. In their starred review, School Library Journal says, “readers will feel a sense of the real community Trev has beyond his immediate family. They will also appreciate the complex supporting characters and feel hopeful”. For me, the two words that pop out in that are “community” and “hopeful”. It’s so important for Trev and young people to find their “village” because it means seeing who has our backs. Plus, people in our village are mirrors because we try to be a rainbow and shine light on them and they also shine back light on us that makes us feel hopeful and other great things. 

Shari: For such a “tight” book, the characters just leap off the page. Are any of the characters in Hands drawn from real life?

Torrey: Some of the characters in Hands are drawn from real life. I’m Trev because as a boy I used to draw how he does. There’s a scene in Hands where Trev’s oldest sister is amazed by a drawing Trev did of The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, as Black Adam. He wishes he was as strong as Black Adam. As a boy, I saw Black Adam in comics and I’m a HUGE fan of the movie Black Adam and The Rock. Trev’s friend and neighbor Pete—the 12-year-old who Trev learns how to box with—is inspired by kids I’d box with. His Rec Center is the one I trained in. Readers love Trev’s uncles and I’m lucky because there were men around my neighborhood who looked after me better than some family. Trev calls them uncles, and I did too. And Ms. Clark knows who she is. Yours is a question I bet I’ll be asked when I do author-visits for Hands so I’m curious what characters audiences will want to know are based on real people.

Shari: What types of readers do you hope will read Hands, and what message would you want them to take from it?

Torrey: I hope kids all over our globe read Hands. As a boy, I had stories in me that I wanted to share with the world because I believed in my heart that other kids had to feel how I felt. Now that I’m an adult I still hope my stories travel the world because my heart still believes that other kids feel how my characters feel. Another person who feels that way is Pernille Ripp, who lives in Denmark, and she’s in charge of The Global Read Aloud. About Hands, she said, “This needs to be translated into Danish for all the kids that need it here too.” She thinks kids all over the globe should have Hands read aloud to them. So, Hands is for kids all over the world. Its setting is New York and New Yorkers feel that it’s so true about New York and New Yorkers that both a Bronx  middle school and a Brooklyn middle school are doing a whole school read. While Hands is for middle graders, it’s also for fourth and fifth graders because educators like Patrick Andus in Minnesota who teaches 4th grade recommends on his blog that Hands is for fourth grade and up, a Brooklyn teacher is reading Hands to all of the fourth graders and fifth graders, and Rochelle Menendez in Texas says it’s a book that all of her upper elementary students would grow from and love.

Shari: I completely agree – let’s get this into ALL the kids’ hands (and grown-ups too)! How was writing Hands different from Tight or What Lane? 

Torrey: Writing Hands was the hardest book I’ve ever written. Some of Trevor’s story is about overcoming perfection. He learns it’s not about being perfect–it’s about NOT being perfect and figuring out what works and what’s helpful. While writing Hands, I put a pressure on myself to write the shortest of all of my books and I wanted it to be the perfect book. My chapters are super short–like two paragraphs short. The longest chapter is maybe two pages. So I’d compare my two-paragraph chapters to other author’s chapters of many pages and I’d doubt myself, Two paragraphs? But, I kept trying to be like Trev and stay open-minded to a page setup and poetic style of writing that isn’t “right” for everyone, but feels right to me and to my students. Being open-minded and accepting Hands as the book it became led to people accepting it in phenomenal ways. Recently, Matthew Winner had me as a guest on his show called The Children’s Book Podcast and he told me, “You have a beautiful, beautiful way of writing these micro chapters, these, these quick “Oh, I can just read a chapter and then put it down. I’ve got time to read a chapter”, and then you find yourself reading multiple”. About the poetic style of writing, Adam Gidwitz, Newbery Honor–winning author says, “Gorgeous and gripping, Hands is a poetic page-turner.” So writing Hands differently than my other books is appreciated by others in ways that remind me to trust myself.

Shari: Speaking of short chapters… Torrey, I am amazed at how you always tell such powerful stories in so few words! Why is this important to you, and how do you do it?

Torrey: It’s important I tell a story in as few words possible for the same reason that roller coasters aren’t long rides. In their starred review of Hands, School Library Journal says Hands offers an unputdownable story that’s a fast rollercoaster of short thrilling chapters. So I hoped Trev’s story is a rollercoaster ride and offers thrills to readers, especially when school or life feels slow or boring. No one quits what’s fun. If it’s fun, we keep doing it. I don’t want readers quitting my books so I try to keep my books fun and fast-paced so readers keep saying, “I want to read more Torrey Maldonado books”.

Shari:  As an educator, how do you find time to write books? More importantly, how does your teaching influence your writing? 

Torrey: Sometimes, I lose sleep. I have these stories in me that I have to get out and, if there aren’t enough hours in the day, I’ll stay up late or wake up early to write. I’ve been teaching for over 25 years. I’ve gone from when a lot of these comic book movies were just comic books to seeing them on the big screen, which is great because I teach and I like to help young people realize that they are super heroic. So much of teaching is storytelling. I storytell in every class, all day long. My challenge is after a long, exhausting workday to tell myself, “Okay, find time for you to storytell about what you and students experience, but, this time, storytell as you type and turn it into a book”. As a teacher, I see that students hold a tremendous amount of power in their hands but don’t realize their power. That’s one reason I titled my book Hands. Students have a firmer grasp on things than they think. So, with Hands, I show through Trev how we spot areas where we have a little grip on what matters and turn it into a stronger hold on things.

Shari: I love that! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your books?

Torrey: Readers can find me on social media at @TorreyMaldonado. You could also find me at my website, torreymaldonado.com. I’m excited about my website because I just added a page for Hands. There are things there that I can’t say in interviews that I hope give readers more windows into seeing Trev’s story and how it mirrors many of our stories.

Shari: What other new or upcoming books would you recommend for our readers?

Torrey: Colby Sharp just came out with a list of “Ten Must Read 2023 Books For Kids” where he chose Hands and calls it “130 pages of gold.” There are so many great books on that list. I recommend books in a blog I did for The Children’s Book Council. We partnered for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which happens two days after Hands publishes–January 26th–and the blog is a giveaway of a signed copy of Hands and a spotlight of eight sports-themed books that help readers win in sports and win in life . This is a giveaway that readers here can join too so I hope everyone tests their luck. Good luck because the giveaway winner might be reading this.

Shari: Thank you so much for joining us today, Torrey, to share about Hands! I already have it on order for my library. I can’t recommend it enough, and look forward to seeing it out in the world!

Torrey: Thank you and, since a theme in Hands is boxing, I hope that I gave knockout answers.

Shari: You absolutely did! Readers, do yourselves a favor and preorder Hands today! You can even get a signed copy by preordering from Greenlight Bookstore.

Torrey Maldonado was born and raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects. He has taught in New York City public schools for over 25 years and his fast-paced, compelling stories are inspired by his and his students’ experiences. His popular young readers novels include What Lane?, which won many starred reviews and was cited by Oprah Daily and the NY Times for being essential to discuss racism and allyship; Tight won the Christopher Award, was an ALA Notable Book, and an NPR and Washington Post Best Book of the Year; and his first novel, Secret Saturdays, has stayed in print for over ten years. His newest book, Hands, publishes on January 24, 2023, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, won a starred School Library Journal review, and amazing reviews from Horn Book, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com or connect on social media @torreymaldonado.

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