Being a librarian gifts me the ability to build relationships with my elementary readers that span multiple years. I have come to expect with trepidation the abrupt transformation many 4th graders go through over the summer. They come back to school as 5th graders, with a new outlook on decision making, one that I cannot comprehend. I’ve tried talking, walking them through their previous choices for as long as we’ve known each other, but it has been difficult for them to put into words what exactly is behind the choices they are currently making, leaving me without ideas on how to best stand by them.
Looking for answers, for understanding, I turn to books, I read stories about kids their age, I read diversely and widely and yet, had not gained much insight until I fell into Torrey Maldonado’s stories. Maldonado’s latest book What Lane? has taken me the closest I have ever been to understanding my kids. It’s hard to explain exactly what I glean, maybe I’m not meant to understand completely, maybe I’m not capable, but I feel a fleeting tickle in my brain, like I’m getting it, I’m understanding my boys and girls. Maybe, what Maldonado offers adult readers, who are invested in supporting their students through the middle grade age, is empathy, hope, a flutter of wings in our hearts that the kids we’ve known for so long, that we look at now and wonder where exactly the kid we knew has gone to, is that they are still there, figuring themselves out and needing us to believe that they will figure out what they need to keep of who they are, what they need to change and grow into, to make their lives as amazing as can be.
What Lane? introduces to readers’ lives, Stephen, an 11- year-old biracial boy, his mom is white and his dad is African American. Stephen has bought into the philosophy of Marshall Carter, his favorite basketball player, that believes that the world is his lane, there is no lane he cannot ride. Stephen believes this about himself, there are no lane limitations for him, he can ride in any and all lanes. Middle grade readers will absolutely eat this up, after all they have adults in their lives that tell them things like “You can do whatever you put your mind to!”, “The sky is the limit!” “You can do anything! You can be anything!” but through Stephen’s journey they’ll explore how this is not life’s reality, especially if you are a black or brown child, a trans child, a differently abled child.
Maldonado uses pop culture references (for example: Miles Morales Into the Spiderverse, Stranger Things, Harry Potter ) and preteen and neighborhood slang, to draw middle grade readers into Stephen’s world. It’s one parallel to their own which sets up readers to see themselves in the situations Stephen and his friends and classmates are experiencing. Stephen’s best friend, Dan, is white. They have a strong bond and an honest friendship, they care for each other, keep each other in check, and have a wider, diverse group of friends they interact with. Stephen is at an age where he no longer looks like a little boy, and with this change, comes the realization that adults in his community no longer see him as the kid they’ve always known. Through different incidents, and the forced presence of Dan’s cousin, Chad, who has recently moved to their neighborhood and is determined to drive a wedge between Stephen and Dan, Stephen begins to realize that the world is not his lane, the world does not allow a black, brown, or biracial boy to ride every available lane.
What Stephen invites readers to explore is the possibility of not bottling up the visceral feelings he is experiencing as he notices that the world around him has decided he is a threat, he is up to no good, he is a troublemaker; as he feels the sting and fear prejudice and racial profiling is causing. Stephen puts into words all that he is feeling and thinking as best he can, in conversations with his dad. His father offers clarity and also the harsh truth that people are now viewing him differently, not because he has changed, but because he looks more like a young man and less like a child. Being brave in sharing what is happening is a path that helps Stephen deal with all of these feelings, find answers and also advise on how to cope with this new reality.
Stephen’s absolute trust in his friend Dan leads him to point out how they are treated differently. At first Dan doesn’t want to accept that because he is white his actions are always viewed as innocent, whereas Stephen’s exact actions are viewed as transgressions. Maldonado offers middle grade readers a model of what a healthy friendship should feel like. Stephen and Dan are honest with each other, listen to each other, and because of this Dan finally admits that maybe he should notice things more. Future incidents are met with Dan acting as an ally to Stephen and pointing out the injustice that adults are committing. This is a powerful model!
As the story progresses, Stephen encounters more racial profiling, peer pressure from Chad, and the realization that his motto “What Lane?” might not be one he can live by because of the color of his skin and the world we live in. This is a painful realization but with it also comes the clarity, that there are lanes Stephen doesn’t ever want to ride, and trying to ride them only brings regret, such as trying to meet every dare Chad throws his way. Maldonado doesn’t tie this realization up with a pretty bow, and frankly he might just undo some of the damage us well-meaning adults, have done by parroting ideas that equate to the What Lane? philosophy to our children, because it’s just not possible for anyone, even more so for children of color and marginalized communities.
One lane Stephen questions is if as a brown boy he should be so tight with a white boy. This made my reader, educator, and mom heart worry, I’ve seen this issue come up in real life; if you’re Latinx, you should surround yourself with Latinx friends, if you are African American you should hang out with African American friends. Painting our world with just one color is a dangerous proposition for any group, and Stephen faces this when Wes, a classmate who is also his friend and African American, points out they don’t spend much time together anymore and resents it. Wes wakes up Stephen to the Black Lives Matter movement, makes Stephen aware of lives lost to police brutality, such as young Trayvon Martin and others, and questions whether he should be spending so much time with Dan. Stephen toys with choosing, should he choose to spend his time with Wes, who understands the prejudice and fears he is experiencing, or should he continue spending his time with Dan, who cannot completely empathize with him because he doesn’t suffer the racism Stephen is subjected to constantly. I won’t share how this evolves, but I will say, knowing Maldonado’s writing, my heart had nothing to worry about in the first place.
What Lane? is a story that all middle grade readers should have access to. As with all books that explore the social justice issues & inequality that our children face today, adults should provide scaffolding support and an open invitation to conversation without judgement about what readers need more information on.
Torrey Maldonado’s What Lane? is a necessary story for everyone, not for certain “insert label here” readers. Living through Stephen and Dan’s relationship, what true friendship looks and acts like, is necessary. Understanding the prejudice and profiling a child of color is subjected to and how reaching out to caring adults is an avenue worth exploring, is necessary. Understanding white privilege and what being an ally looks like, is necessary. Understanding that the claim that you are “color blind” is an excuse to not take action against racism, is necessary. Understanding our world’s social justice issues, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the events that led to its need, is the first step to recognizing the injustice we are living in and how it is everyone’s responsibility to change, is necessary. What Lane? is definitely a lane all our children should ride if we want them to grow up to be changemakers and socially responsible humans, and who doesn’t want that for their children and students?