Award-winning Author Addresses Greenfield Students

Vince Vawter Shares Stories of Life as a Paperboy
Posted on 11/06/2019
This is the image for the news article titled Vince Vawter Shares Stories of Life as a PaperboyVince Vawter, award-winning children’s book writer and former newspaper reporter and editor, was on his way to speak at a national convention in Memphis last week. But first he had to make a stop in Greenfield.

Speaking to Lee Ann Usery’s seventh grade class has become an annual event for the Newberry Honor Book author of “Paperboy” and its sequel “Copyboy.” The connection began five years ago when Greenfield’s Nancy Biggs, a former teacher and relative of Vawter’s wife Betty, introduced Usery to the story of what became an Amazon Best Book of the Month described as “an impressive look at hope and bravery in the face of adversity and the fierce protection of love.”

“Paperboy” is part biography as it relates the trials of a stuttering 11-year-old boy coming of age in Memphis in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and the gritty reality of serving as the summer news delivery boy to neighbors grappling with secrets and troubles behind closed doors. Vawter, now retired from a lengthy journalism career, still stutters but that hasn’t kept him from speaking to more than a hundred schools since his first book was released in 2013.

Last week, Vawter’s presentation to the Greenfield students saw the former reporter turning the tables, inviting them to ask questions from their reading of the novel.

“I always get good questions,” he said as he opened up the discussion, and, adding with a chuckle, “I sometimes have good answers!”

Among the reason for such great questions and the desire to know more, explained Usery, is the amount of time students now spend on analyzing one book.

“We used to just read the book and we were through,” she noted. “Now we read the text, go back and dig deeper.”

“Digging deeper” is part of the “close reading” process, Terri Stephenson, a director of instruction for Weakley County Schools, said. “The first time the text is read for the story. The second time students may work in pairs to examine grammar. And a third time, they will be looking at the development of theme, characters – all the elements of literature.”

As a result of such in-depth examination, many of the students feel a sense of connection to the characters. During the question and answer session, they wanted to know “Is the part about ________ true?” or “What happened to _______?” as Vawter explains that all but one of the characters in the first book were based on real people. The only character he made up, he said, was the impetus for a second book.

Mr. Spiro became a dear friend to Vawter’s young protagonist and many readers were concerned about a resolution for the totally contrived character. When Vawter told a young girl in Florida that he could tell her the outcome of every character but Mr. Spiro because he wasn’t real, the girl countered, “But you can. You made him once and you can do it again.”

So Vawter did. And the young adult novel “Copyboy” chronicles a now 17-year-old who has advanced in his newspaper career and is set on a mission that takes him to the mouth of the Mississippi River during a hurricane.

As Vawter answered queries from the very prepared seventh graders, he revealed much about the writing process. For example, when asked if writing “Paperboy” was difficult, he replied, “It was harder than it should have been. I had to write over 200,000 words to get to the 50,000 that tell the story I wanted to write. That’s what writing is. Writing the first draft is easy. It’s writing the second when it gets hard.”
He also confessed that writing was not his first career choice.

“I always loved words, but when I was your age I couldn’t say my name. I stuttered so badly. What I wanted to be was a baseball player, and the reason is because you didn’t have to talk.”

Walking onto a college baseball field and experiencing his first 95 mph fast ball soon convinced him he needed an alternate plan.

“If I can’t talk, then I better learn to write,” he surmised. “So I took journalism courses not knowing that reporters spend way more time talking than writing.”

When asked how the speech pattern affected his life, Vawter underscored, “Trying to hide my stutter affected my life.”

He listed coping mechanisms like giving all his friends nicknames he could say when they had names he could not get out or pressing a thumbtack into his palm when he was asked to speak in class because he thought the pain of the tack would take away the suffering from stuttering.

“All it did was make me have two pains,” he acknowledged. “It is a lonely life. You want to say something but when you open your mouth it doesn’t come out,” he said.

As the students listened to the stories, humor and reflections generated by their questions, more lessons were revealed including the fact that speech therapists no longer focus on “curing” stuttering but instead work to help children find their voice.

“As you can see, I still stutter. The problem was as a child I tried to hide it. As a reporter … I tried to get a handle on it. The best thing to happen was when I realized there’s nothing wrong with stuttering. I found my voice and that voice is a stuttering voice and that’s ok. It doesn’t stop me from saying anything I want.... Each of us has to figure out who we are, who put us here, and why.”
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