"I trust words on paper alot more than words in the air."
So writes eleven-year-old Little Man on the first page of his written account of July, 1959 - the account that forms the Newbery Honor Book, Paperboy. Little Man stutters when he speaks, and that impediment creates a constant internal dialogue about word selection and communication avoidance - an additional layer atop the standard social awkwardness of his pre-teen years. Little Man - so-named by his nanny/housekeeper/surrogate-parent/best-friend Mam - has learned techniques to adjust and avoid oral communication. But when he takes-over a vacationing friend's Memphis paper route he is forced to step outside his comfort zone and speak with the newspaper customers who live in his neighborhood.
That supporting cast of exquisitely-formed characters provides the framing of this gorgeous book. There's the beautiful-yet-lonely alcoholic woman; alternatively flirtatious, ambivalent, coy or passed-out drunk. There's the mysterious little boy who stares at a soundless television and never reacts when Little Man comes to collect a payment. And a special bond forms between Little Man and a retired sailor who seems to know everything, including how to help a stutterer express himself.
Also featured are members of the minority community in Memphis. Ara T is a mysterious junkman and suspected thief who pushes his cart through the alleys of Little Man's neighborhood. Big Sack is the noble yard man who keeps an eye on his friends. And of course there's beloved Mam, with her white uniform and black maid's cap, quietly and proudly enduring the segregated South.
Sure, there's more to the story than a boy walking around the neighborhood delivering newspapers. In fact, the confrontational bar room climax scene is as intense as any adult best-seller. There are three or four curse words in the book, and an issue of questionable paternity. That said, I wouldn't hand this book to a 5th grader. I've read that Vawter didn't really intend to write a middle-grade book; he just wanted to tell his story. His storytelling is grand, but make no mistake - the situations and conflicts are not watered down for the tween set.
Readers of all ages will quickly recognize Vawter's writing talent. He's a retired newspaper man with the ability to turn a phrase. And he truly captures the voice of an 11-year-old boy who stutters. In the Author's Note section, Vawter reveals that Paperboy is "certainly more memoir than fiction." He was once the stuttering Little Man, and these are emotions he's not likely to forget.
I haven't heard anything about another book from this author. Perhaps his story is told, or maybe there's another episode that he will share. I'll certainly look for a follow-up. But if Paperboy is his only work, I can't be disappointed.
Paperboy begins by sharing the frustrating self-talk experienced by a stutterer, but evolves into much more than a "teen problem" book. It is the story of a summer of change and growth. Little Man understands this himself. Near the end of the book, his friend returns from vacation and can't wait to share his rural adventures. Little Man writes, "...I had an idea that stories about dirt-clod fights and catching rabbits wouldn't be that interesting anymore."
Don't be surprised if Paperboy leaves you feeling exactly the same.