"What superpower do you wish you had?"
Torrey Maldonado likes to ask this question when he talks at schools about his new novel, "Tight" (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Young Readers, $16.99, ages 10 and up).
"Every kid's hand goes up," said Maldonado in a recent phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. "They all have an answer: super speed, super strength, flying."
In his book, the main character, Bryan, wishes he was as smart as the superheroes Black Panther and Batman, who think ahead and figure things out. His best friend, Mike, wants to be as strong as Luke Cage.
But Maldonado reminds kids that they already have an important power: the power to choose.
Maldonado knows that can be easier to say than to act on.
Facing tough choices
He, too, faced tough choices in middle school, just like Bryan does. He knows the choice is rarely between an absolute right and an absolute wrong.
Take Bryan's friend, for example. Mike is smart and likable. Both boys love hanging out for hours, reading comic books and discussing superheroes.
But Mike has another side. He talks Bryan into doing stuff that Bryan has always thought is wrong, such as skipping school and jumping turnstiles to ride the subway without paying. When Bryan pushes back, Mike makes fun of him for being "soft" and scared.
Bryan doesn't want to lose his only real friend. And he doesn't want others in his Brooklyn neighborhood, especially his tough dad, to see him as "soft." When Mike's risk-taking gets another kid into big trouble, Bryan doesn't know what to do or how to step away from the friendship.
When Maldonado talks to students about his book and their choices, he says he often feels like he's "talking to a younger me."
Growing up in a neighborhood like Bryan's, Maldonado knew kids like Mike. And now that he's a middle-school teacher, he sees his students faced with similar choices.
"Most of us have had Mikes in our lives," he said. "A bully isn't just someone who steals your lunch money; some are cool and popular, like Mike. How do you deal with them?"
Maldonado worked hard to create Mike as a complicated character. He didn't want Mike to be a caricature of a bad guy, but to have positive traits as well as flaws. This would make him more believable.
A mother's influence
When he was a kid, Maldonado had someone who tried to show him the power of choice: his mother.
She encouraged his writing since he was "in diapers," he said with a laugh. Her own writing inspired him.
"I loved it when she would open her spiral notebook and ask my opinion about a poem she had written, or a quote" that she liked, he added.
When his mom realized she was the model for Bryan's strong, loving mother in the book, she was so touched that "she started crying," Maldonado said.
The author is working on a new novel, about a mixed-race boy. As he juggles teaching and writing, Maldonado says he sometimes wishes he had a certain superpower. "Super speed like the Flash," he said. "That way, I could write all the stories I have in my head."
Excerpt from "Tight"
When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.
I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.
Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”
Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.
What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.
Yo! I wish I could explode magician smoke in front of me and — poof — I’d be gone and not here, all embarrassed.
I nod at Hector. “Okay.”
“Tell Joe I say hi.”
Outside his store, I look above everyone’s head — above all the laughs, the arguing, and the music.
I look toward Manhattan, and I wish things could be different.
I wish my family had more money.
I wish that girl didn’t have to see me be broke.
I wish I had a brother for real.
I wish I wasn’t in my feelings.
I wish I didn’t care so much.
Excerpted from "Tight" by Torrey Maldonado. Copyright © 2018 by Torrey Maldonado. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.