Summertime living isn’t easy for Little Man, 11, in the segregated Memphis of 1959. He stutters badly but has agreed to take over the paper route for his vacationing best friend. Collecting payment means speaking with new people, who often assume he’s stupid as soon as he opens his mouth. There’s also a mean junkman who steals his penknife and threatens his family’s live-in housekeeper. Where that knife ends up is only one of the secrets along a paper route marked by questions, dreams and fears. Why does pretty Mrs. Worthington drink and cry? Why does Mr. Spiro, a retired sailor, give Little Man a word inked on the corner of a dollar bill? And most important, who is Little Man, beyond society’s tendency to define him by his disability, and what might he become? Historical details ground this compelling first-person narrative in place and time, from glimpses of “The Howdy Doody Show” to the racial divide and first signs of change in the Jim Crow South . The novel’s form, too, with its block paragraphs and liberal use of white space, mirrors the starts and pauses of Little Man’s halting speech. In his author’s note, Vince Vawter calls his heartfelt debut “more memoir than fiction.” Certainly, his characterization of Little Man feels deeply authentic, with the boy’s hyper-awareness of problematic letters and speech strategies and his fierce desire to be “somebody instead of just a kid who couldn’t talk right.” The moment when Little Man finally manages to say his difficult-to-pro nounce full name, Victor Vollmer, is a victory for the true self.
By Vince Vawter
Delacorte. $16.99. Ages 10 and up