Vince Vawter has delivered one of those books that translates so well to those beyond the age of its protagonist in his first novel, Paperboy. Nominated for a Cybils Award in the middle grade fiction category, this is a book that certainly has already received its fare share of accolades and one that I will not be surprised to see on virtually any awards list. It’s the story of twelve year old Little Man (who isn’t named until the very end of the book) and the summer he spends filling in for his best friend, Rat, on Rat’s paper route. Little Man lives in 1950s era Memphis, and he is looked after by the family’s African American maid, Mam. (It is Mam who calls him Little Man, and that’s really the only name we know him by.) His family is well-off, with his father a businessman of some sort and his mother a society lady with little time for her son. As Little Man’s summer unfolds, we learn some things about him: he has a debilitating stutter, he is a very good baseball player, and he has a story to tell, as evidenced by the very first few lines of the novel:
I’m typing about the stabbing for a good reason. I can’t talk.
There are several plot threads going on in this story: Little Man meets a few paper route customers who make his summer interesting and give him something to think about. One, Mrs.Worthington, is a beautiful woman on whom Little Man develops a twelve year old’s crush. We see her in her neediness and with all her problems, the least of which perhaps is that she drinks to excess. He meets Mr. Spiro, a Merchant Marine who reads widely and opens up to Little Man a world unknown to him before. Most importantly, Mr. Spiro is the only person besides Mam who sees beyond his stuttering, understands him, and has the patience to help him through it to a real conversation. There’s also a narrative thread in the story that involves Mam’s African American community, namely in the person of one Ara T., the one person Mam despises. Yet another element of the plot is Little Man’s discovery of a family secret.
Yes, there is a lot going on in this novel, but each thread is told through thoughtful Little Man’s eyes. This story has been rightly compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I won’t go so far as to elevate it quite to that level, I definitely agree that it is similar both in theme and tone. This is a coming-of-age story in which Little Man experiences quite a bit of the adult world but retains his innocence thanks to the love of a few key adults. My personal favorite aspect of the story is how accurately it seems to portray the feelings of a child who stutters. Vince Vawter writes from very personal experience. This description is perfect, especially for a twelve year old baseball player:
No luck. The D sound stuck tight in my throat like a tennis ball in a chain-link fence. (58)
Again, this is another story that I’m not sure will translate quite as well for children as for adults, though Vawter does capture a twelve year old’s voice very well. (I actually think this one might appeal to boys and children in general a bit more than others I’ve loved as well.) The middle grade Cybils designation might be a wee bit young, but with a twelve year old protagonist I doubt this one would go over well as a YA novel. There’s a smattering of cursing (though it is contextually powerful and realistic) and some heavy issues–alcoholism, infidelity, abuse, racial inequality, etc. This reads like a memoir, and Vawter says it is that it is “certainly more memoir than fiction.” Whatever it is, it’s good, and I give it a Highly, Highly Recommended. (Delacorte, 2013)
Most grown-ups and especially my relatives and friends of my parents treated me about as well as could be expected without them knowing exactly what I was going through when I tried to talk. Some people tried to finish sentences for me and mostly would get them wrong. Some people just smiled a fake smile and waited on me to get my words out while they were looking around the room. Some got confused and just wandered off as quickly as they could [. . .]
[. . .] It’s like I walked into a room with an organ-grinder’s monkey witting on my head and everyone pretending the monkey wasn’t there. (60)