Red Hook native Torrey Maldonado is using the last thing on most adolescents’ minds to motivate them: the power of words.
In his debut novel, “Secret Saturdays,” Maldonado — who grew up in the Red Hook projects — weaves a powerful tale about 12-year-old boys living in world where jail-time and tough-guy attitudes often win out over school and politeness.
“I wrote ‘Secret Saturdays’ so alpha-male teens wouldn’t feel soft carrying it — and they don’t,” said Maldonado, 37.
Like his protagonist, Maldonado found an escape from the pressures of the streets in books and school, which led him to study at Vassar College and then to become a teacher — he currently works at Middle School 88 in Park Slope.
“I remember being 12 years old and just getting back to the Red Hook projects after visiting a relative in jail, and a gun shoot-out started right outside while I was in the store buying groceries with food stamps,” Maldonado said. “Right there, I did something that built my will to survive and succeed. I remember feeling and thinking, ‘Someday life will be different for me.’”
At Vassar, Maldonado’s past and present worlds collided dramatically. While tutoring at an upstate prison, he ran into a former friend who was arrested for killing his elementary school principal, Patrick Daly, in 1992.
“The inmate was a boy I ran wild with as a kid,” Maldonado said.
Those kids are the people Maldonado — or Mr. T, as his students affectionately call him — is trying to reach nowadays as a teacher and young-adult author. And it seems to be working: “Saturdays” is the most checked-out book at M.S. 88’s library, and it is required reading at schools around the country.
"I did what the comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s wife did — she realized her kids hated healthy foods so she snuck healthy food in delicious snacks, then made a cookbook," Maldonado said. "I snuck lessons in 'Secret Saturdays.' Most youth prefer fun, mystery and a thrill ride."
Torrey Maldonado will be at the Young Readers Book Group at Greenlight Bookstore (686 Fulton St., Fort Greene) on Feb. 22 at 6:30 p.m. RSVP required to attend: 718-246-0200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.