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We’re all aware that challenges to twice-exceptional students come in many forms. From the physical, to emotional, to learning disabilities, our students struggle to meet their challenges, and in many cases very successfully. In Paperboy (2013, Delacourte Press) a first novel by Vince Vawter, we see yet another kind of challenge. Here our hero/protagonist is severely limited by stuttering. The situation is even more complicated by his quick and bright mind. His speech therapist has given him a few techniques to help him overcome his stuttering; but through his own ingenuity, he has worked out other, more effective techniques to help him communicate verbally.
The novel, set in 1959 Memphis, accurately presents the struggles and the tragedy of a segregated South. Vawter uses this struggle to parallel our hero’s own struggles. The boy’s name is never given, but we know he is an eleven-year-old Caucasian who is sympathetic towards African-Americans and who comes from a “comfortable” family. Our story begins when he takes over the paper route of his best friend for the month of July, while his friend is away. Our hero is well aware of the challenges coming up — being forced to verbally communicate face to face with his customers.
The book jacket calls this a “coming-of-age” novel, and it certainly is. In just this one month, this young boy faces his own fears, his stuttering, a threat against his life, the question of just who his birth father really is, and understanding his own identity. He meets each of these challenges face to face and even heroically. He is enabled in this by the support of Mam. “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.” Mam calls our hero “Little Man.”
The other great influence in this month of the boy’s life is a customer on the paper route. Mr. Spiro, a retired merchant marine, spends his life studying and traveling. His house is stacked with books arranged in a most creative and handy way. The sequence in which the boy first meets Mr. Spiro, one of the more dramatic and telling scenes in the novel, enriches the book so very much. Vawter is truly a great storyteller and a great craftsman, but that is what we should expect from a retired newspaper publisher.
Mr. Spiro launches our hero, whom he calls Young Traveler, on a journey based upon a riddle. This riddle is spelled out in four pieces of a torn one-dollar bill, each with its own word written upon it. Our Young Traveler is suitably impressed with Mr. Spiro — with his formal speech laced with quotes and echoes of great literature, with the quality of his deep “radio voice,” and with his genuine understanding. The boy knows that he has found a guide and a friend in Mr. Spiro.
Paperboy is another one of those novels in which the reviewer is tempted to tell too much. I must stop here or risk revealing a bit of a surprise ending.
In a column last year (July, 2012), I pushed the idea that Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, was a book every teacher should read. This year, I have once again found a book that I believe every teacher should read and seek to work into her/his classroom instruction and activities. It is, of course, Paperboy. I highly recommend this wonderful and, I think, significant little book. For readers who are aware of my What’s New in Young Adult Literature presentations and book lists (presented again at this year’s NAGC Conference), you might be interested to know that I named Paperboy as my Top Favorite Read.
Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at email@example.com.