The Grain of the Voice




In this series, called YA Hit List, we invite authors of young adult and children’s literature to tell us about some of their own favorite books, the ones that helped shape them and the ones that they would recommend to young readers, whether or not the books were written specifically for that audience. Previous contributors have created their own special “top ten” lists around a theme, such as Sarah Skilton’s on “noir” or David Levithan’s on “idiosyncrasy.”

This installment features Paul Volponi, who grew up near Rikers Island in New York and has worked with incarcerated youth. In his books, with titles like Rikers High, Black and White, and Rooftop, he talks to and about kids on the edge of survival — economically and emotionally. I came to read his work when researching YA about Hurricane Katrina and found Hurricane Song, one of the best books for kids about the storm and subsequent flooding. Volponi pulls no punches in his fiction, and in Hurricane Song he squarely tackles issues of race and how institutionalized racism exacerbates the results of natural catastrophes, causing additional and unnecessary human suffering. 

Volponi’s latest book is called Game Seven, and it’s about a 16-year-old Cuban kid whose father fled the country to play pitcher for the Miami Marlins, leaving him and his sister and mom behind. I asked the author to tell us what he values in fiction, and he offers a great list with commentary on what I call the “grain of the voice” — showing us, or inviting us to hear, the deeply personal voices of characters in fiction.

— Jonathan Alexander, LARB YA Editor

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IN HIGH SCHOOL, I was a nonreader. I wasn’t blatant, though. I pretended to read the books we were assigned. I even had a bookmark which I strategically placed a few pages ahead of my classmates’. I passed English class, mostly with an 85–90%, mostly just listening to the classroom discussion and spitting it back. (Before the in-class discussion about Catcher in the Rye, I was convinced it was going to be about baseball.) It’s not that I wasn’t interested in language. Actually, I was uniquely interested in language. I was the best trash-talker on any New York City basketball court, a skill that kept me alive and out of fights. It was just that books weren’t speaking to me. Instead, they felt more like dead weight when I tried to read them.

That changed when Mark Twain’s Pike dialect found my ear, particularly as my teacher Ms. Sussman was reading Huckleberry Finn out loud. My ear pricked up when listening to the narrative of Huck playing a serious trick on Jim and even using the N-word. That tickled feeling multiplied for me during a stage production of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, when Tom Joad uttered, “I don’t take no offense ‘cept a bust in the nose.” Since then I’ve been collecting narratives, rejoicing in them, paying more attention to unique uses of language, and creating them in my own speech and fiction writing.

Here are a few notables from my personal collection, basically the ones, well-known or not-so-well-known, that both make me smile and wish that I had written them.

Flannery OConnor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” It’s amazing how this cartoonish family gets up and starts walking across the page. The story is a testament to the writer’s ability to blend motion with voice. The scenes between the grandmother and the infamous Misfit are tense and satisfying, and the gunshots still ring in my ears whenever I reread the story. 

Paul Griffin, Stay with Me. This is an amazing instance of how an urban romance and a rescued dog equal a hard-edged blissful sound. Several years ago, I was lucky enough to hear Griffin, himself, read from the book to a room full of students. He didn’t change his voice with the varying characters; he just added slight inflections. It was pure and truthful.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. As I mentioned earlier, Tom Joad’s bravado, even when unintentional, could serve as a train conductor making important announcements about the stops ahead.

Greg Neri, Chess Rumble. A story of free verse at the chessboard. An 11-year-old gets challenged to fight his battles with pawns and rooks instead of his fists. The voices simply resonate as Little Big-Man and a streetwise chess master find their way from square to square.

Jack Lewis, “Who’s Cribbing?” This short sci-fi story about time-travel plagiarism is comprised of a series of letters between a writer and editor. The voices are stark yet cutting, creating a narrative relatable to anyone who ever put pen to paper.

Liz Weimer, Hello? The multiple voices and styles here remind me of a patchwork quilt. It has the same feel as Carole King’s Tapestry album. I find myself replaying the voices in my mind, like songs with shifting keys and melodies.

Among other narratives that touch me in this way are Chris Lynch, Inexcusable, with its untrustworthy narrator; Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why, which creates a palpable voice from beyond; Shawn Goodman, Kindness for Weakness, with its juvenile detention center staccato; and Drew Daywalt, The Day the Crayons Quit, and its world where wax crayons make perfect sense with their complaints.

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Paul Volponi is a writer, teacher, and journalist living in New York City.


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