What would you do if you had a strong stutter? Would you avoid speaking? Would you use techniques from your speech therapist, even if it made you sound like a snake? The narrator in this part-fiction part-memoir tells the story of an 11 year old boy, as he takes over his friend’s paper route during the summer. Paperboy, winner of the 2014 Newberry Honor Award, is set in 1959 in Memphis, Tennessee and the narrator is white and from and affluent family. This is the journey of this young man, how his speech impediment defines all of his verbal decisions, about the people who influence his life and his thoughts about the decisions people, especially adults make. Three aspects of this novel that will be evaluated are the writing style, the significance of the historical aspect of the setting, and the authenticity of the story and protagonist, due to the fact that this book is based on Vawter’s experiences.
EVALUATION OF BOOK
Vawter deftly navigates this story by the use of the narrator’s voice, which serves as one of the foundations of this work. First, it matches the style of our narrator. Early in the book, he talks about how he hates commas. Consequently, there are no commas in the writing. In addition, quotations are not employed when any character is speaking. “Mam came to Memphis from Mississippi when I was five to live with us and help take care of me and one thing’s for sure. I wouldn’t have made it this far without her.” (Vawter, 2013, p. 16)
Vawter’s perspective of the narrator takes the reader into a world where one has to think carefully before choosing the words before attempting to say anything. In a scene where Mr. Spiro asks for his name, our protagonist loses consciousness due to holding his breath. In another harrowing scene, the knife he so desperately needs to cut his bundles of papers is refused to him by the antagonist until he can can it by its name, “knife.” In another scene, he decides to order spaghetti, since he thinks its within his ability. The most stark representation of the narrator’s speech is exemplified when he narrates his dialogue with another person. After receiving the advice to let out air before speaking. An example of this is
“s-s-s-s-Why do they s-s-s-s make you ride in the s-s-s-s back of the bus s-s-s-s?” (Vawter, 2103, p. 195)
At first, it is unusual to the reader, but as the story continues, the reader adjusts to his speech.
Vawter, who grew up in the 1950’s, is an example of an author who recounts, “their own life stories in a fictional format” (Terrell, Bryan, Jacobs, Tunnell, 2020, p. 181). This is especially important because Vawter had a stutter and even now continues to bring attention to his story through books and advocacy groups. (“About Vince,” 2021) This authenticity is important to the story in many ways. Vawter immerses the reader in the constant conflict that the narrator feels when answering a question. Every word he tries to speak is carefully considered and chosen. Other positive attributes of this setting are references to pop culture. Being a paperboy, for example, is no longer a job for a young pre-teen. There are references to shows from that time such as Howdy Doody, Red Hot and Blue, Dragnet and Boston Blackie or the comic Dick Tracy.
The setting of this book is in the South, in the middle of the civil rights movement. At this point, while the Civil Rights Act has not been passed, other notable changes have happened. Arkansas, has had examples of desegregated schools. Vawter uses this setting to include instances of the racial climate of this time. In one scene where the narrator and Mam, a black woman who helps his family with domestic needs, ride the bus.
“s-s-s-s-Why do they s-s-s-s make you ride in the s-s-s-s back of the bus s-s-s-s?”
“We can ride up front if you is wanting to (p. 195)
This scene, and another where Mam says she cannot go to the city zoo unless accompanied with a white person and she wears white, highlights the setting of this time. In this time, the civil rights movement is not in full force and Browder v. Gayle, where the US Constitution deemed bus segregation as unconstitutional does not happen until 1956. The Civil Rights Act is not passed until 1964. At the same time, this is not a book solely focused on racism. The South in the 1950’s is the time that Vawter grew up in as a white male with a stutter and that is the perspective the reader sees. However, these scenes of racism provide honest opinions and expectations that existed at that time.
This coming-of-age, part memoir, part fiction, set in 1959 Memphis, Tennessee tells an important story. Being set in the South in 1959, it gives the raeder a perspective of racial issues at that time, although the main story rests on the challeges of the narrator. This book is highly recommended for children in any library setting. It provides so many things to the reader such as a historical setting that perhaps at this point, only the grandparents of young people have experienced. It provides the extreme and authentic burden of life with a stutter. It is another reason why books need to be available and read by young people. It offers them an experience outside their own to better see the world with empathy and understanding.
About Vince. (2021). Vince Vawter. http://www.vincevawter.com/about/
Terrell, A.Y., Bryan, G., Jacobs, J.S., Tunnell, M. O. Children’s literature, briefly. Person Education, Inc.
Vawter, Vince. 2013. Paperboy. Delacorte.