RAWing with Paul Volponi answering the five questions of doom
Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. Why did you focus on writing books with an urban setting featuring youth of color?
-I taught for six years on Rikers Island, the world’s biggest jail. My students were more than overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. Every day they’d ask me, Where are all the white kids at? They do crime too? How come they’re not locked up here with us? Those questions gave birth to my writing career. I simply started by writing what was around me. Also, I was always a street kid, and felt most at home on a basketball court. For years, I’d unknowingly been collecting stories of the street by being a sharped-eyed viewer and an active participant. I was like a budding musician who’d never played an instrument before. But if you observed me closely, I had always been tapping a foot to the rhythm being played out around me.
Your books, in particular Black and White, Rucker Park Set-Up, and Response are popular for lots of reasons, but in particular often with kids who can’t or won’t read other books. In your opinion, what are the elements of a successful book for reluctant teen readers?
I never read the books they gave me in high school. I just pretended to read them and listened to the classroom discussion to pass. I can’t pinpoint the elements of a book for reluctant readers, but I was more influenced by TV, movies, and real-life conversation than I ever was by books. I think I write the books I would have liked to have actually read, both then and now.
I know you do many visits to schools – in person or via Skype – to promote your books as well as meet your readers. Tell me why teachers should invite authors into their classrooms.
Writers should go to classrooms because it shows students that books come from people who speak and think just like they do. That they can do this, too (there really is no better answer).
The minefield question: so I reluctantly read a blog post about Outburst in The Alternative series. This book tells the story of an African American teen girl coming out of detention and going into foster care. The review began with “Jones, who is white …” and I wished I would have stopped reading. Have you faced this being a white male writing stories for and about kids of color? Most everybody seems to be onboard with we need diverse books, but is it only if those books are written by people of color. What are our thoughts on this issue?
When I walk the streets of NYC there are no fences between anyone. What touches you can touch me and vice versa. I’m part of life and that’s what I’m writing about. A company in Texas once read Black and White before it was published and told me, “You can’t write this unless you’re Black.” So they passed on publishing it. A year later, the American Library Association (who probably hadn’t seen me yet) included me on a list of famous African-American authors. That publisher’s letter and that ALA listing sit side-by-side inside of the same frame in my office.
What are you working out now? Most authors have something they’ve just released (Game Seven), something they are editing and something they are writing. How many monsters are willing to let out of the closet?
I just finished a fantastic book called Game Seven. It was inspired by a photo of a floating 1959 Buick that several Cubans had turned into a car/boat and sailed the 90 miles to Florida. I was so taken by the photo that I wanted to write the story of how those refugees arrived at that moment. That became Game Seven, which has a baseball-driven theme. And I am wildly proud of that book. I strongly encourage people to read it.