AUTHOR: Vince Vawter
PUBLISHER: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
RELEASE DATE: May 14, 2013
GENRE: Junior Fiction
PAGE COUNT: 240
Set in ’50s suburban Memphis, Paperboy is a gripping Own Voices coming-of-age story. 11-year-old Little Man has battled with a debilitating stutter all his life. His unique view of the world takes us on an adventure beyond the walls people raise to defend their inner truths. Paperboy is about not judging a book by its cover.
Little Man is our irresistible first person narrator. When his best friend goes away for a month, Little Man offers to cover his newspaper delivery route. This seemingly trivial favour is a terrifying challenge. When he musters the courage to speak to strangers, he discovers much more to his neighbourhood than meets the eye.
Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts. I burned that sentence on to my brain like Ted William’s name was burned on to my Louisville Slugger baseball bat – page 63
Little Man’s interactions with adults exemplify society’s attitudes towards disability – people’s lack of understanding for Little Man’s situation results in them ignoring him and/or trying to get away from him to avoid embarrassment. Usually, they assume he is intellectually impaired rather than speech impaired (or act as if the two are mutually inclusive).
Invisible to outsiders, Little Man’s brilliant brain is working overtime to piece together his small but complex universe. When communication is a never-ending battle, Little Man sees each word as critical and precious. His deeper relationship with language makes him the perfect point of view from which to dissect the masks people wear to conceal their true selves.
My words all come
And right on time.
The words are true
The words are mine.
– page 109
Paperboy explains what it feels like to have a barrier between what one thinks and what one says – making the act of expression tense with dysphoria. Writing the way Little Man speaks is a great technique for helping readers empathise with his struggle. Throughout the book, Little Man uses short paragraphs, but not a single comma, because, “I pause all the time when I’m trying to talk whether I want to or not … I would rather type a gazillion “and” than one little comma” (page 2). His dialogue includes his pauses and the hissing “s-s-s-s-” of the Gentle Air technique he uses to help get difficult sounds out. I love how this immerses us in Little Man’s experience, making the struggle of speaking relatable.
Does W remind you of waves of water? Does a capital H remind you of the columns of a house? Does an O resemble the face of an owl? Does an S look like a snake? I juggled the letters and waves and owls and snakes around in my head. How come nobody had ever told me that letters were more than sounds you make? – page 65
Historical Context & PoC Representation
Due to its historical setting, Paperboy describes everyday acts of racial segregation and discrimination. Little Man is angry about the stigma his family’s black housekeeper, Mam, bears when they are together. Mam is his rock, helping him to see his value even when society can’t. Their friendship is proof that perceptions based on a person’s exterior never even scratch the surface of who that person is inside.
I know a kid is supposed to respect grown-ups who make the rules and also respect God who knows how everything is supposed to work but I couldn’t get over the feeling that neither one of them was doing a very good job – page 140
On the whole, I think Paperboy would make a stimulating high school text. In particular, its ability to put readers inside the mind of someone with a disability is a powerful tool for fostering empathy. However, I question whether the representation of people of colour was thoughtful enough for a book published in 2013. I appreciate that Paperboy represents the social norms and attitudes surrounding people of colour in ’50s Memphis – specifically how PoC were viewed by white, middle class families. That said, Vawter uses alcoholism and violence in the black community as the basis of the plot’s climax. This made me uncomfortable because I couldn’t decide if this portrayal was intended to be accurate to Vawter’s experience (Paperboy is loosely autobiographical) or a case of harmful stereotyping.
Regardless of Paperboy’s representation of people of colour, it is easily one of the best disability narratives I’ve read. It uses an unconventional style of narration to put readers inside Little Man’s mind. This way, we learn to see the world as he does, with all of its complexities and dilemmas, façades and truths.