“What was your favorite book as a young reader?”
I was on a panel and a librarian asked us that. Her question magically time-traveled me to when I was maybe a bit taller than a fire hydrant and cuddled next to my Mom in our Brooklyn housing projects apartment. My Mom read a book to me as I watched her eyes smile. It felt as if what she read gave us what we needed. The book was a fleeting magic carpet ride out of poverty yet it didn’t get me lost in a distant place. It simultaneously showed me that magic was around me and made me feel that my world was bigger than my zip code. In retrospect, whenever my Mom read that particular book, the lyrics of Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” became true: “And suddenly the ghetto didn’t seem so tough. And though we had it rough, we always had enough.” My favorite childhood book was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.
Kids will love the books if the books love them. I have taught middle school for nearly 20 years and I feel that is true. My dream as a teacher is my dream as an author: to provide books for kids to love, books that will love kids back, and to share stories that help them see things as more complex.
I drew from my students’ and my own experiences, and the settings we know, to write Secret Saturdays and Tight. Librarians and educators say that my books are real. Tweens from across the U.S. have told me that my books are their lives. With both books, I strive to show that sixth grade is a crossroads of choosing who to become, of making choices that keep some on track and make others fall through cracks. Yet with Tight, I wanted to also uncover new ground and spotlight a timeless trend that I lived and realize is a growing trend with many.
The trend is superhero worship.
As long as I have taught, kids visit my classroom at lunch and bond over comics and superheroes. I join the discussions. They and those who attend my readings will tell you that I am often in my Black Panther, Luke Cage, Superman, or other superhero t-shirts. Time spent with my students and my lifetime of superhero worship have both revealed a trend in a trend: the toxic masculinity modeled in comics. Many superheroes are stereotypes of manliness. I wrote Tight as a mirror for my students: The characters are superhero fans who bond over a shared superhero worship. But through Tight we also see that our world needs more 21st-century, complex male heroes.
I see my students as multidimensional and heroic in many ways. In Tight, I attempted to portray a tween today with complexity of character, who wants a superpower and finds real ways to be super. What has been the reaction from real-life kids? I gave my students a sneak peek at the cover of Tight when it was being considered for the finished book design. Their eyes widened and one kid pointed at another who could pass for Bryan on the book and said, “He looks like you!” That excitement shot through the roof when they realized Bryan wears a Batman shirt and holds comics.
The feeling that I was kindling a passion for books in them felt so good and was amplified when Jacqueline Woodson, the National Book Award winner of Brown Girl Dreaming, wrote a blurb for Tight. She said, “I was riveted by Bryan’s journey to breaking down stereotypes and becoming his own kind of superhero. This in and of itself is not only Bryan’s superpower but Maldonado’s as well. Loved this book!” To me, Woodson is a modern Keats and so much more. Her praise means a lot to me and gives me hope that Tight could feed different needs of my students and other kids.
Who knows? Maybe they will walk away with the same love for Tight that I have for The Snowy Day.
Books by the Author: