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.
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.
A younger me
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.
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.”