Male Monday: Eric Gansworth

AR-130929572Eric Gansworth is a writer and a visual artist. He  is an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation who was raised at the Tuscarora Nation, near Niagara Falls, New York.  He is currently working as a Professor of English and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. His latest novel, If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013), has been reviewed by the L. A. Times, Kirkus and by Publishers Weekly. I was recently able to in interview Eric for this blog. Enjoy!

I always start with the same few basic questions.

Where did you grow up?

Tuscarora reservation, Niagara County, New York.

Do you have any pets?

I have a cat who has lived with me for a couple years. She’s a shelter rescue cat, so I’m not really sure how old she is. I would guess, given her size and shape, that she’s easily six years old. My previous cat lived here for 17 years, and slept on my desk for the writing of my first nine or so books. Sometimes, when I’m writing, it still feels like if I look over to the desk, there he’ll be. I have nothing against dogs, though some breeds I avoid, those with the brute power to do physical damage if they’ve gotten that into their heads. You cross a cat, it pees in some unwanted places. Not pleasant but something I’ve dealt with. A Rottweiler, I’ve noted from personal experience, is a different matter. I was at a dinner party years ago and the hosts’ Rottweiler roamed the room, under the table, seeking affection, etc. Though the dog had a generally calm disposition, one guest absently came up on it from behind and patted its head. The dog must not have heard him, and in two seconds, it was in a position of defense/attack. Fortunately, the host was a couple feet away and was able to intervene. I don’t want to have that kind of psychic energy around me very often. I grew up with dogs and cats, but cats suit my adult temperament better.

What do you enjoy watching on television?

I don’t watch a lot of TV live, except for some morning news—my schedule is way too complicated to be in front of a television at a given hour every week–but I watch a fair number of series on DVD. It’s pretty broad, from the BBC social-critique zombie drama, “In the Flesh,” to the surreal comedy, “Community,” to edgier drama like “Orange is the New Black,” and “Dexter.” I particularly like a British show that has not made it to U.S. television, called “Trollied,” a nuanced comedy about employees at a grocery store. I avoid certain kinds of shows for personal reasons that have nothing to do with their quality. In fact, many are quite fine but I prefer not to examine their subject matter. I actively avoid shows that celebrate bully culture, but I also discovered that, as well produced as it was, “The Big C” was too emotionally challenging for me and I had to stop watching it. Oddly, though I am the least sporty person on earth, I truly loved “Friday Night Lights,”

and was deeply sad at its loss. It was awesome small town drama, pitched in perfect ways for its ensemble cast and the remarkably epic physical setting.

Mostly, I tend to watch the same few movies and some vintage shows I love, over and over, while doing mundane chores like folding laundry.

Meat or vegetables?

I am largely a carnivore, given my preferences. I could pretend here to be pro-vegetable by claiming that French fries are technically potatoes, but even I know that’s nutritionally a lie. I get a lot of grief for this, and some friends seem too preoccupied with finding that magic vegetable that’s going to convert me. I wish they’d accept that I tolerate broccoli, asparagus, and parsnips, but that I’m never going to love them, no matter how they’re cooked. You can dress up a pepper, but it’s still inherently a pepper. In those situations, I often want to insist to my vegetarian friends that if they’d just put the right seasoning on that steak, they wouldn’t notice the meat at all, hoping the inverse analogy would get them to grasp my fundamental aversion. I’ve always been puzzled by my vegetarian friends’ inability to see that their repulsion to meat is exactly the same experience I have with vegetables. Sorry, I’ve probably gone on too long about this issue, but at 48, I’ve pretty much stopped politely pretending that there’s a difference in those stances.

Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?

Probably some of the same ones for a lot of people. My home was not really a part of book culture, so my exposure came in the form of books my older cousins were assigned in school and didn’t want to read. As such, the stand out volumes that they passed on to me were To Kill a Mockingbird, The Pigman, and The Red Pony. The Outsiders I discovered when a tough girl from the reservation who hated reading loved this novel so much that she stole it from school. That immediately intrigued me. Our elementary school librarian introduced me to a collection of distinctly grotesque folk stories called The Grandfather Tales that I loved. She had a wonderful sense of what we were interested in. This book had a dark sense of humor similar to the prevailing edgy one on the reservation. I think of it now as Flannery O’Connor for kids. I started buying books on my own, (terrible novelizations of horror movies I loved) when I was 12 or so. Around that time, I bought Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, thinking it was another novelization, I discovered the world of beautifully written books about subjects I loved—discovered that there were well written books even about monsters. That was my life changer.

And then the interview begins!

What are some of your best memories of growing up at the Tuscarora Nation as enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation?

I think it’s hard to make a meaningful comparison, as I’ll never know, fully, what a standard, American upbringing at the time was like. I suspect one huge bonus was that the Nation is a pretty insular community. Among its thousand or so residents, everyone knew everyone, and so there is a large sense of belonging to something. I know American culture celebrates the individual, and our culture tends to be more about the group identity. I didn’t necessarily fit that, because I’m kind of a weird person in general, but it was nice to feel as if everyone around you knows you. I don’t imagine that tends to be true in, say, suburban neighborhoods. Do parents know kids from five streets away in suburbia? It seems like that’s only true if there are friends in those families, but on my reservation, not everybody is a friend, necessarily, but there are no strangers.

How has life changed for teens growing up there today?

Well, I suspect, as with everywhere, technology has had a huge impact. Our tribal leadership had an impasse with cable communications companies, so when I was growing up, we had the three local channels, a couple independents, PBS, and a few channels from Toronto. The couple times I saw the channels available in suburbia, it was mind-boggling. Now, with the availability of satellite dishes, and their popularity on the reservation, I suspect there are some technological levelers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, formal education on the reservation has also made major strides. A thorough and thoughtful curriculum including classes in our traditional culture, language and history, is in place and ambitious in scope, for young people now. It also includes units involving family so there’s an awesome opportunity for cross-generational teaching and learning. It seems like a good time for young people who want to strike that balance between the traditional and the contemporary.

I loved Uncle Albert. And Bug. Carson wasn’t so nice, but he got the best lines! It seems like character development is easy for you. From where do your characters come?

Thank you. I’m glad you liked them. I had fun with them, as well. For the record, though, character develop9780545417303ment is not easy, by any means, at least not for me. A writer’s job is to create believable characters who seem like real people, but those final renderings come after much hard work, feedback and revision. My particular upbringing offered a rich growth environment for a writer. An anthropologist who studied my community for many years has suggested that the Tuscaroras live by a code of “forbearance,” a sort of “tolerance of individual choices.” I don’t think that’s exactly the right word, but it’s in the ballpark. While there are many rules within the traditional culture, there is also a lot of leeway for people to become themselves within that context. As such, I grew up in a rich environment of folks–from the most bland to the most eccentric–where differences were not suppressed or pressured out of people. To be respectful to others’ privacy, I don’t write characters drawn from any one person. I invent the characters I need, adding qualities and details borrowed from people I’ve known, mixing and matching as the characters demand.

Why The Beatles?

Pop culture has always informed my work, because it was always a dominant force in my life. The first story I ever published had appearances by The Monkees and The Jefferson Airplane, and they were both meaningful to the story’s ideas. The Beatles are among the major cultural forces of the twentieth century and proving to last well into the twenty-first. They’ve shown up a lot in my poetry over the years, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before they wound up as a dominant force in my fiction.

I am not prone to eye-rolling, as a rule, but I grew up wholly on a reservation. When writers who did not grow up in indigenous communities over-saturate their fictional worlds in some hard core “Native spirituality” culture, totally at odds with any reservation I’ve ever been to, I feel an obligation to document the indigenous experience as I know it. A lot of Indian artists who grew up in communities joke about that exaggerated, performative choice–we’ve all seen it–calling it “The Leather and Feather Show.” The Beatles have always been, and continue to be, a major presence for me, so I’m following the traditional writers’ advice and “writing what I know.” 

[Discography]

Was it difficult setting on the title, If I Ever Get Out of Here?

I had a totally different title when the novel was in its earliest formative stage, and then I had a name that was tied to a plot point from the end of the novel, and finally, when it became clear that Paul McCartney was going to be a significant artistic force, that phrase showed up and from the second it did, I knew it had to be the novel’s title. The longer I worked, the more perfect it seemed. The novel is about two guys in middle school, so to some degree, I thought that sentiment would be self-evident. It’s also about the ways we, at that age, are so vulnerable and trapped by circumstance. We’re not really children anymore, but we’re still years away from being able to make meaningful decisions about the directions our lives are going. So, the “Here” isn’t just the physical setting of the school, but also that awkward stage between the formative years of childhood and the freedoms of charting our own courses as adults.

If I Ever is the first YA piece you’ve written after a long line of adult works. What challenged you most about writing for teen readers?

I’ve consistently written about younger life, so that focus wasn’t an issue. My first published short story is about one afternoon in the life of a four year old, as remembered by his adult self. My writing for adults tends to be pretty interior, about the life inside, with a ton of detail, history, and memory. The first draft of this book looked like that as well. The most challenging thing was to strip away a lot of that tonal, interior detail and memory, in order to bring the plot into the forefront, while still keeping it in the ballpark of the kinds of ideas I want to write about.

Finally, what does diversity mean to you?

Perhaps because of my cultural upbringing, I see diversity as a treaty. A treaty is a negotiated common ground between different ideological groups. A number of groups, it seems to me, still try to negotiate a formal separatism, but I don’t really see that as attractive. I have my ruts as much as anyone else does, but I also like to consider new things. I’m an accumulator—I suppose that’s a nice way of saying I’m a hoarder. I don’t drop one aspect of my life when it’s no longer fashionable, or because something else is more exciting. I like the comfort of the familiar and the thrill of the new. If you were to look at my book collection, or film collection, or music collection, you would see a very wide diversity in each. I find they all give me something rich, without taking away from the others, and that, truly, is what diversity means to me—the opportunity to grow with the exposure to new cultural forces, but not at the expense of those with which you’re already familiar.

Author/Illustrator Interview: Laurianne Uy

I had the pleasure of meeting Laurianne (Laur) Uy at ALA a few weeks ago. She is such a charming young lady and so obviously talented that I invited her for an interview. Not only did she agree, but she also signed a copy of Polterguys Vol. 1 that I’ll be giving away in a drawing on 10 August. To enter, leave a comment below that states you’d like to win the book by midnight, 9 August. I will mail international.

PROFILE_PIC


Full Name: Laurianne Uy
Nicknames: Laur / laurbits / laurchan / psychoe
Contact: laurie.uy [at] gmail [dot] com – See more at: http://www.laurbits.com/profile#sthash.EAiWnLdY.dpuf

 

Let’s start with a few short questions.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the city of Manila, Philippines. In 1992, I was in second grade when my family moved into a unit on the 11th floor of a condominium. This was because the condo would be closer to our school which means we didn’t have to spend hours and hours commuting in traffic. Even then, we still had to be up by 5:30 AM to make it to our 8 AM classes. I guess my siblings and I were slow movers in the morning! But I remember we had a really nice view of the city from our balcony windows.

So, When did you move to the US?

I moved to the U.S. in July of 2002, right after I graduated high school in the Philippines.

Do you have any pets?

I don’t! Unfortunately, I’m allergic to pet hair which is awful because I adore cats! It’s so bad I’m subscribed to a few cat channels on youtube to get my kitty fix. And although I jump at any chance I can get just to be near cats, I always make sure to load up on Benadryl before I meet them.

What do you enjoy watching on television?

I love well-written animated series, cable drama and a few sitcoms here and there. I like shows that have compelling characters that evolve and have stories that can move me. If it’s capable of making me cry in some way, I’m almost positive it will be a favorite.  

Meat or vegetables?

Actually, Nathan and I went semi-vegan for a while just to see how much meat we could eliminate from our diet. I was really surprised how much I got into it considering I grew up with very meat-heavy dishes. For the most part, we just cook vegetables and have them with rice at home (I’m Filipino-Chinese and this is a staple!) but eat whatever we like when we eat out.

Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?+-+7148378_140

Nancy Drew was a big deal for me because it’s the first series I ever collected. I guess you can say I’m really fond of young female detectives solving mysteries! I love that Nancy’s dad was supportive of her escapades and that she dragged her friends into cases, too. I only bought and read up to the 20th book and I don’t think any of the bookstores carried the numbers beyond that.

What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?

Oh man, I always come out of the library with a huge haul so it’s a mix of things. I’m reading a bunch of long manga series like Bakuman, Yakitate Japan and Sailormoon. I also listen to audiobooks at work so I’ve been picking up young adult, fantasy/sci-fi and non-fiction books. I recently completed the Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy and Stephen King’s Under the Dome and really enjoyed both.

WEB-Necromancer

Necromancer

When did you first realize that you’re an artist?

Maybe it was the fact that I doodled little stick figures all over my piano books instead of practiced with them. I had no idea what sketchbooks were and just found the gutters between columns on newspapers as interesting settings for my stick figure characters. There were a lot of tall cliffs!

Who was the first character that you created?

I don’t really remember! I’m sure it was some stick-figure princess in a little cone hat with some cloth on top but the first set of characters I designed when I started making comics was definitely my high school friends. I wanted us to hang out with our favorite anime characters so I started making comics that chronicled our adventures together.

Tell us about Polterguys! What inspired the book?

Polterguys is the story of a nerdy college girl who ends up moving into a house that’s haunted by five cute ghost guys. Since she’s FINAL-PolterguysVOL1COVER_JPG_minithe only one who can see them, she has to help them resolve their unfinished business.

There are a ton of influences in this book and the first is of course, reverse harem manga like Ouran High School Host Club and Fruits Basket. Girl-centric TV shows that had great female leads like Buffy and Veronica Mars showcase the kind of writing I aspire to. Finally, I also grew up on a lot of fun 90s ghost movies like Heart and Souls and The Frighteners. They’re both great character-driven supernatural stories and anytime they’re on TV, I’m just compelled to watch them because the stories just suck you in.

What happens to Bree in the first volume?

Bree moves out of her dorm room because she has issues with her roommate and finds a nice place to rent off-campus. It turns out to be populated by ghosts who really just want to be friends with her because she can see them. She ends up becoming responsible for them because they get in trouble with a Reaper, a being who essentially takes ghosts away to move on to great beyond.

What are some of the future adventures that you have planned for her?

I don’t want to get too spoilery but I’d really like her to struggle with relationships with living people this time!

You’re such a visual person, I wonder what kind of experience school was for you. Was it a real struggle to get through reading text and writing answers? Was school interesting to you?

School was good for me. I suspect I was having more fun actually learning than my peers because I didn’t complain as much! I also remember the curriculum as really encouraging creativity and that was definitely something I responded to. We would have art projects for science, english, history and I remember drawing all the time. So, while I never got around to proper art lessons, I got a lot of practice on academic hours.

The only issues I ever ran into were my Chinese classes because I barely understood the teacher and didn’t speak the language at home or with my friends. To this day, I still get nightmares about pop quizzes in Chinese – it’s definitely left some deep psychological scars in me.

What’s challenging you most in drawing these days?

I’d say perspective and backgrounds. I want to be the kind of comic artist that masters fundamentals so I can tell immersive stories and have my characters be in believable settings and environments.

If you could visit any museum in the world, which would it be and why?

I’m going to be boring and say the Louvre because I haven’t been to Europe yet despite having majored in Art History. I just know seeing work I’ve studied for semesters in person is going to blow my mind.

Thank you so much, Laur!

Author Interview: Sonia Manzano

I am so excited to have been able to interview Sonia Manzano! She’s the person we all feel like we know personally, but who has many larger than life accomplishments. In her role as Maria on Sesame Street, she has been named one of the 25 Greatest Latino TV Role Models Ever. Her first young adult novel, The revolution of Evelyn Serrano was a 2013 Pura Belpre Author Honor book and was selected for the CCBC Choices 2013 list. She is elegant, gracious and quite a role model for us all. I hope you’ll enjoy this interview as Sonia shares a little about what has inspired her to do all that she does.

Congratulations on being named a Pura Belpre Author Honor book!

Thank you so much for agreeing to an sonia_manzano3interview! I hope it helps a few more readers find your book.

Let’s start with a few short questions to get things started.

Hello and thank you so much.  Here goes!  

Where did you grow up?

The South Bronx

Do you have any pets?

Never as a kid but as an adult I had a black lab.  But it really belonged to my husband.

What do you enjoy watching on television?

I mostly watch movies and a show called Girls on cable.  I love British dramas on PBS, and admit that I am slightly addicted to old films on Turner Classic Movies.  I guess I prefer cable and PBS because I hate commercials!

Meat or vegetables?

I love both and mostly stick to chicken.

Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?

Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, Charlottes Web, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?

41UwzB4wrCL._SY300_I read a lot. Just finished Pinned by Sharon G. Flake.  A book called The Street by Ann Petry.   Rita Moreno: A Memoir, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor.  I’m re-reading Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

1969. Spanish Harlem. To what music would Evelyn be listening?

Joe Cuba, Ray Barretto and the timeless Stevie Wonder

How did you develop an interest in Puerto Rican history? Was it taught in schools? At home?

No, no, no! Puerto Rican history was never taught in school and though my parents had some rudimentary education in Puerto Rico in the 30’s and 40’s, I don’t think Puerto Rican history was taught there either.  I must say it was The Young Lords and all the progressive groups of the Civil Rights era that bought Puerto Rican history to my attention.

How do you think things have changed from the 60s to today for young girls growing up in Spanish Harlem?13436375

Can’t really say because I don’t live there. But what I noticed as I strolled the streets doing research for The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, was that there were many South and Central Americans living in El Barrio as well as Puerto Ricans.

I heard you speak at the Joint Conference of Librarians Conference in Kansas City this past summer and remember you speaking about the inequity in the schools in New York and how much catching up you had to do to reach your full potential. I cannot imagine the emotions you felt when The revolution of Evelyn Serrano was named a Pura Belpre Honor book. Can you describe any of the emotions you felt?

perszPura Belpre was such an icon even I knew of her in my un-literary household. Her stories with their Caribbean /Spanish sensibility intrigued me.  I felt the tales had something to do with me but I wasn’t sure what.  Surely, the Perez y Martina stories planted seeds of curiosity in me.

Needless to say I am thrilled to have been honored and feel I’ve somehow come full circle.

Will you write another teen book?

There is another teen book rumbling around in my head.  I am working on a memoir for Scholastic now! 

What does diversity mean to you?

To me diversity means many kinds of people (including young and old) solving problems together.

¡Gracias

De Nada!

Male Monday: Torrey Maldonado

Torrey Maldonado is an author and educator. His first MG/YA novel, Secret Saturdays was a 2011 ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers selection. Torrey is also an advocate for literacy, education and young men of color. He recently agreed to the following interview and I think that you’ll be as amazed by his energy, optimism and hope in our collective future (i.e., our children) as I am.

First let’s start with  a few questions to introduce you to my readers.

Where did you grow up?

“In New York!” (to quote Alicia Keys’ song) “The Concrete Jungle where dreams are made of!”  My upbringing and path from poverty to being featured on NBC, CNN, and other media is more similar to Jay-Z though.  Red Hook, Brooklyn is where I grew up and it’s an “other side of the tracks” place that is full of contradictions.  On one hand, it’s the hard Brooklyn housing projects where my sister was the Day Care teacher of the NBA-star Carmelo Anthony.  Life Magazine in 1988 called our neighborhood the “Crack Capital of the U.S.A.”.  On the other hand, Red Hook “will make you feel brand new” (to quote Alicia Keys again) and it’s the tightknit, warm community where many “hipsters” and “artsy” types today visit, fall in love with, and set up shop.  Red Hook’s contradictions, charm, and warmth have a hold on me and it’s why I thought I’d write the next Harry Potter or Twilight series but blinked and I produced a debut novel set in Red Hook about two Red Hook friends.  I think Red Hook’s magic is what landed Secret Saturdays on states’ High and Middle School reading-lists and inspires Red Hook organizations and colleges to assign it next to classics such as The Outsiders and invite me to visit.

Do you have any pets?

I SO wish I had pets.  I miss my cat, Snow White, from my childhood.  Sure, she peed on and clawed to shreds my prized two-hundred plus-comic book collection!  Urgh!  But I still miss her because pets have a magic that I see makes people’s eyes light up more than when they see friends.  So why don’t I have pets?  My wife does this hacking cough, allergic thingy if she’s around animals for too long; so, I gave up pet-ownership for another love.  Now, we have a toddler and she may be allergic to animal-hair.  But every now and then, I get lucky and am invited to author-visit around the country and stay with pet-owners.  Oh, I’m in “pet heaven” then (hi to Mr. & Mrs. Udell in Husdon!  Hey to the Antony John family in St. Louis).

What do you enjoy watching on television?

I’m like the people who like my book—I like T.V., but only good T.V.  I rarely get to watch T.V. because I’m a veteran public school teacher PLUS an author PLUS a father PLUS an active collaborator with a few organizations that help youth evolve into their best selves.  The other night I got the rare chance to watch T.V. and I re-watched an international T.V. phenomenon—a first episode of “Heroes”.   Sci-Fi, fantasy, and magic realism T.V. feeds my “T.V. sweet-tooth” because it was that non-reality programming that sweetened by childhood when the hardships of my neighborhood soured my reality.  I also prefer T.V. or movies that have characters who look like the mix of our world.  My T.V. and movie tastes color my writing.  I wrote Secret Saturdays while constantly asking, “Would a young media-addicted ‘me’ read this?”  In other words, would today’s Young Adults and Middle Schoolers say my book has “made for T.V. swag”?  I still have a letter that a Bangladeshi mom wrote me.  She said, “Thank you. My son is addicted to video games and T.V.  For the past two days, he’s read your book and did none of those things.”  I hope someone who makes movies sees the similar response on amazon.com from a Child and Adolescent psychologist.  She starts her therapy groups by reading a chapter of my book to grandparents, parents/caregivers, teens, and tweens and everyone feels my book should be a movie.  As for the multicultural aspect of my writing, both my family and my friendship-circles are proud because I’m on must-read Black, Latino, and multicultural book-lists.

Meat or vegetables?

Right now, you can’t see me but I’m licking my lips and eyeing Thanksgiving Turkey.  However, if you could look inside my mind, you’d see a steel-cage wrestling match: the meat-eater I am now versus the vegetarian I was for nearly ten years.  I come from a mixed—Black and Latino—upbringing, just like the half-Black and half-Puerto Rican two main characters of Secret Saturdays.  The cultures of my family and neighbors during my childhood put meat in every meal.  So Luke was able to resist “the force” that his Darth Vader dad was serving but, as much as I resisted, bacon tempted me back to the “meaty”-side of life.  It’s a tasty world yet I’m reminded of a sixty-something year old vegetarian I recently met.  How does he look forty years old with a muscular body like Duane “The Rock” Johnson?  He says his secret is he doesn’t eat meat.  He quit after the Vietnam War and has outlived his friends and family.  So, today, I’m eating meat yet should I?

Are there any books that stand out in your memories of childhood?

I still time-travel back to a “happy early childhood place” whenever I see Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day.   My mom would peel back those pages and I thought I was looking in the mirror—I thought that little brown, boy protagonist was me!  Interestingly, I was invited to speak on Election Day on an award-winning, all-male panel in the recent New York City Librarian conference.  Our session was entitled, “Engaging Boys in Reading” and the first man on the “mic” began by saying his favorite childhood book was A Snowy Day!  Wow!  To quote Roberta Flack or Lauryn Hill, he was “telling my whole life with his words”.  Is it a coincidence that we share the same childhood, favorite book?  I think the answer is in the weekend before that panel.  The weekend before, I was invited to speak at the YALSA Symposium in St.  Louis on a panel called “Guys Talkin’ to Guys: What Will Guys Read Next?”  Ours was a different all-male, diverse panel yet there were so many uncanny coincidences!  Most of the guys said they were drawn to similar books that I loved as a boy, tween, and teen.  Us loving the same books and types of books as children influenced another coincidence—we now write those kinds of books (books where fictional characters and dialogue feel real, comics and graphic novels, books that are cool for guys to be seen carrying, thinner books, and books with chapters as long as the attention-spans of today’s Young Adult and Middle School females and males).

What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?

I might be revealing that I’m a “history geek” with this answer.  I bought and, so far, am enjoying every moment I steal to read the just-released graphic novel The Hammer and The Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America.  As a teacher and author, I’m more in the middle of two places.  First, I’m in the middle of reading books that I use in my classes.  At the same time, I’m wrapping up writing a book that I’m told Young Adults and Middle School students will devour in under a day.  I just wish I could finish writing it in under a day.  

You’re an educator! What subjects and ages do you most enjoy teaching? Why?

I’ve taught for sixteen years in two capacities and see a strong connection between both fields.  For three years, I was a Conflict Resolution Trainer and Staff Developer for the U.S.’s largest victim-services agency and taught schools to set up and run Conflict Resolution programs.  There, I taught adults as well as classes from fifth grade through twelfth graders.  Then, I became a sixth grade Social Studies (History) and have loved it for the past thirteen years.  The connection between my Conflict Resolution and my veteran teaching careers is what most teachers do: develop students’ character.  That’s what I aim to do with my novel and I love one librarian’s review of me in her “Library Lounge Lizard” blog because she “gets” a part of why I teach and write!  She says: “I really loved this book and I will be encouraging teachers and librarians everywhere to read it and keep it in their classrooms and libraries.  The situation of [middle school] boys insecure about communicating their feelings with other boys without seeming ‘gay’ is practically epidemic and compounding that with the fact they sometimes live without positive male role models is a recipe for disaster.”  In Secret Saturdays, I show how kids are losing a language of their youthful honesty and trading their innocence for a new language of “fronting” and being mean and bullying and, for many, this is a fall into an abyss of non-stop ugliness as they falling into lower and lower rungs of meanness.  As a teacher and author, I enjoy being in the “tween and teen crossroads” to help kids sidestep the “abyss of the dis” and stay multidimensional and kindhearted as they walk into young adulthood.  I saw the Common Core Learning Standards on the horizon so designed Secret Saturdays in alignment with them so schools see the added-value in my book.  The heart of the Common Core is get students to listen like judges, think and read like detectives, and write like investigative journalists and Justin grows to excel in all three tasks by the book’s conclusion.  You’ll also find Core-based materials I designed on my site—lessons for major subjects, a Discussion Guide, test, and more.

What books do you recommend most often to your students?

It depends on the student.  I always follow this rule: the best salesperson is your peer.  A kid doesn’t want to hear my love for Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love (although she’s amazing because she does for women in that book what I do for males in Secret Saturdays and Nelson Mandela quoted her in his inaugural speech and Oprah loves her).  Do I think my male and female students should read A Return to Love?  Yes, but they don’t want to read that.  Young people want to wear the Michael Jordan sneakers that their friends wear and, similarly, they want to read what is popular with their peers.  So, when I figure out what issue a student is struggling with I assign a matching fan-favorite book almost the way a doctor prescribes the right medicine.  Basically, it’s always the same equation: a student has an issue, kids elsewhere recommend a book that addresses that issue, and I relay that book into the right hands.

In an interview about Secret Saturdays you talk about all the missing men in young people’s lives and in the lives of families.  I think men are also missing in the voice of teen/pre-teen books, particularly those of men of color.  What difference do you think it would make to have more Black, Latino, Asian and Native American men writing for teens?

Youth—especially young males—have gone so long without soaking up images of themselves in books or as authors that they’re dry sponges and will sponge-up anyone who remotely looks like them.  I participated in the upstate, NY, Hudson Children’s Book Festival and a Filipino boy spotted me and yelled, “YOU’RE FILIPINO, RIGHT?”  I didn’t have the heart to crush him and say “No”.  A one-hundred-and-eighty degree shift in this area would trigger massive, positive change for boys on many levels, especially in the explosion of boys who become men-of-color authors—like I did.  In the 1990s, my mom opened a New York Daily newspaper and showed me a Dominican Republican-American debut author who looks a bit like me.  His name was Junot Diaz.  I took that article and he represented my missing voice so much that I cut out and taped the article on my wall.  Then, again in the 1990s, my mom said a bestselling African-American author named James McBride—the writer of The Color of Water which is set in my hometown—would speak at our local Red Hook library.  I went and he autographed his book I bought with “To a fellow scribe (author)”.  Both Diaz and McBride don’t make up my exact racial make-up yet they fired me up so much that it ignited me to skyrocket into joining them as a professional writer.  I can’t count how many White, Mexican-American, Asian, Native American, and more tweens and teens tell me I inspire them how these authors inspired me. 

Do you think you’ll always teach?

Yes.  And write.

You mention quite often that you’ve always wanted to be a writer.  Looking back, what were some of the things you did, whether intentional or not, that helped prepare you to become a professional writer?

Remember in The Matrix how Morpheus kept waiting for Neo to be ready?  Neo’s whole life prepared him but he needed a push?  My whole life prepared me for the road I’m on but my mom almost slipping into a diabetic coma helped push me to become the professional-writer that she kept waiting for me to be.  Since I was in elementary school, I heard my mom brag that “My son’s going to write books someday.”  The possibility that she might die without seeing me fulfill her dream lit a fire in me that propelled me to write Secret Saturdays.  That’s why my book is dedicated to my mom.  That’s also backstory into how I got my start.  I think jobs I’ve had help keep me successful.  In high school, I had a few sales-jobs and, in one, I sold socks and ties to subway train-passengers.  The rule then was the rule now for most debut authors: “sell or sink”.  When I debuted, I was told “You’re responsible for setting up your author-visits and promoting your book.”  Having learned as a teen how to engage a person and establish responsiveness helps me as a professional writer.  Teaching has prepared me to engage large-groups and also know if I’m “hit” with an audience; so, I group-talk and write with a sense of what will “move” or “lose” an audience.  

I read Secret Saturdays quite a while ago!  In fact, I think I read it as an ARC.  I’m sure that in all that time, you’ve re-visited that story a lot as you discussed and introduced it to new readers. What are some of the storylines you might continue to develop in a sequel?

The publishing game is supply-and-demand.  I have a “hit” with readers and we’ll see if get a sequel.  One librarian made a bulletin board that said, “The 25 Most ‘Checked Out’ Books from Our Library” and my book was number one.  Secret Saturdays was more popular than a lot of books-to-movies!  Wow.  The other day, a girl asked, “When are you done with the second book?  I’m halfway through this one and I can’t wait to close it and open up the next.”  Also, when I author-visit ten out of ten times readers, teachers, librarians, and administrators ask, “When is book two coming out?”  They even have titles!  LOL!   Secret Sundays!  Manic Mondays!  If enough readers demand the book, Penguin will tell me to supply it and I’d love to get the chance to do what readers want: play out want what happens at the end between Justin and Sean; show their friendship change as new teen dramas crop up; see what happens with Sean and Vanessa (bom chicka wow wow); and guess who’s dads re-appear and bring a lot of action and craziness to the mix. . . .  As I cross-fingers and wait to be asked to write a sequel, I’m writing another book with other storylines.

Thanks, Torrey! It was a pleasure getting to know you. I hope Penguin will soon realize how much demand there is for a sequel to Secret Saturdays, as well as other stories you have to write!

Torrey’s bio: Voted a “2012 Top 10 Author”, NBC & more have spotlighted Maldonado & his “hit” ALA Quick Pick novel, Secret Saturdays.  Born & raised in Red Hook projects, he overcame neighborhood poverty & violence to be the first immediate family member to attend college.  Graduating Vassar, he trained schools to implement Conflict Resolution programs through the U.S.’s largest victim-services agency.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Baruch College.  A veteran teacher, his cross-cataloged—Young Adult and Middle Grade—novel is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes, made states’ Middle & High school reading-lists, & is assigned alongside classics in colleges.  Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

Author Interview: Brian F. Walker

It’s been a long time since I’ve done an author interview! I’m excited to get back into the swing of it with Brian Walker, the author of Black Boy White School. If you’re not familiar with the book, you can read my recent review, his Kirkus review or even the one on Publishers Weekly. Black Boy White School is Walker’s first book. I have to thank him for taking time out of his busy day which includes preparing for a new baby!

 

What types of books did you read as a child and how does that affect what your write?

I read a lot of horror books when I was a kid – Stephen King, mostly. I also read comic books (I’m a Marvel guy, not D.C.) I also read some Agatha Christie, Hardy Boys, and anything with animals in it. My favorite book of all time, although I didn’t read it as a kid, is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

I can’t help but think that this story and all its elements were with you for quite some time. What propelled you to finally put pen to paper and write it?

What finally propelled me to write the book is that I have worked in independent schools for years and have noticed that, despite our best intentions as educators, many of the minority kids (especially Black and Latino boys) still have a hard time fitting in/excelling — even AFTER they graduate and attend college. I wanted to write something for them, their families and the teachers and administrators at these independent schools that would alert them to this important but often overlooked issue.

What surprised you most about the process of getting published?

What surprised me most about the publishing process – hands down – is how LONG it takes to get a book out and onto the shelves. There was a lot of editing, revision, talks about the cover,the title, etc. It wiped me out.

Click here to read an excerpt of the book.

Which of your characters is most like you? I couldn’t decide if it was Ant because of his history or George because of his wisdom.

That’s great question… Umm, next question, please! Just kidding. I guess that I’m a lot like Ant, in that prep school was a foreign environment for me – but also like George, in that I attended private school for four years, learned the lay of the land, and was able to earn good grades and a few accolades, too. (although I was NEVER as good at basketball as big George)

What kind of commitment does it really take from families, schools and students themselves for a minority student to succeed at a boarding school?

Another great question. I think it takes a tremendous commitment from the schools, the students and their families – but I think, for me, the most important influence came from my mother. She didn’t take no for an answer and even when I wanted “out” she pushed me back “in.” Now, looking back, I can’t thank her enough for making me stay.

The treatment of Sudanese immigrants in Maine really plays a critical role in the story. How did you decide to give this immigrant group such prominence?  Have you seen things change for the Sudanese?

I teach a unit in one of my English classes that takes a look at the Somali presence in Lewiston. I found it fantastic and fascinating that so many Somalis would choose Lewiston, Maine as a place to settle in the USA. As you may know, there was (and still is) a great deal of tension in Lewiston after so many Somalis settled down there. I just took that tension, put the fictitious school near the town, and rode it out. Also, admittedly, when I was a prep school student a bunch of townies really did march through our campus, dressed like the Klan and shouting racial slurs, before they planted a burning cross on one of our soccer fields. I have heard that over the last couple of years things have gotten better for the Somali and Sudanese folks in Lewiston, which is great. There are still, however, some things that can be improved.

I cannot imagine the emotions the Klan must have provoked in you and your classmates! Yet, you’ve managed to take that event and turn it into a learning experience for others through your writing.

I have to congratulate you on getting your first novel published! Have you begun working on your next project?

I have begun work on the next project and I have quite a few readings/signings/lectures in the works. Interested folks should check my author page on Facebook to get the latest news.

Thanks Brian, and best wishes to you on all your future projects, especially the new baby!