Lesson Learned: The Story Always Comes First by Vince Vawter

If you plug “adults reading kid’s books” into your favorite Internet search engine, page after page will open to give examples of this growing phenomenon.

I think I know the reason.

A middle-grade or young-adult author must cut through a lot of clutter in order to reach those markets. Thus, a kind of clarity emerges in the book, and adults appreciate that type of pure storytelling just as much as the younger reader.

The first several drafts of my novel Paperboy were written with a general audience in mind.  What did I know? I had been a newspaper publisher for many years, but I had never completed a novel.

My agent and then my editor convinced me that I should redirect my story to the middle-grade market. As a result, Paperboy is a better book.

Notice that I didn’t use the phrases  “lower the writing” or “write down for the market.” The story in Paperboy is essentially the same in both my first draft and in the final product. The difference is in the telling. I found out that by deleting or recasting some “grown-up” parts, the story itself and the writing became more sharply focused.

Certainly, no one can say that Paperboy was “dumbed down.” How many middle-grade books do you know that have references to Voltaire, Heidegger, Socrates, Jason and the Argonauts and Candide? And add Howdy Doody for good measure.

Paperboy is autobiographical in nature, especially the parts dealing with the main character’s speech impediment. Did I black out occasionally while trying to say my name? Did I give my friends nicknames because I couldn’t say their real names? Did I bang out words on a typewriter at night that I had stuttered on during the day? Yes. Yes. Yes. And more.

The heroine of the story, which takes place in 1959 in Memphis, is a black housekeeper named “Mam,” and she is patterned after a woman I loved and respected. Adolescence is about confusion. Why can’t I talk like other kids? Why do people treat people of another color differently?

Because I address harsh realities in the book, don’t think that Paperboy is about pain and anger. Just the opposite. Adolescence is the age that the forces of creativity, optimism, and self-worth come to bear.

Obviously, I hope that all ages will be inspired to read my story, but I’m thankful the middle grades get a crack at it.

The paperboy in my tale throws the meanest fastball in town, but I guarantee he would love to be a member of The Nerdy Book Club.

VINCE VAWTER, a native of Memphis, retired after a 40-year career in newspapers, most recently as the president and publisher of the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana. Paperboy is his first novel.